(2 of 5)
But the war did not go well. Soon stories came down from Malaya of the rout on the war front, the ease with which the Japanese were cutting through British lines and cycling through rubber estates down the peninsula, landing behind enemy lines by boat and sampan, forcing more retreats. By January the Japanese forces were nearing Johor, and their planes started to bomb Singapore in earnest, day and night. I picked up my first casualties one afternoon at a village in Bukit Timah. Several MAS units went there in Singapore Traction Company buses converted into ambulances. A bomb had fallen near the police station and there were several victims. It was a frightening sight, my first experience of the bleeding, the injured and the dead.
That same morning all British forces withdrew to the island from Johor. Next day, the papers carried photos of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the last to march across the Causeway, to the sound of Highland Laddie played on their bagpipes, although there were only two pipers remaining. It left me with a life-long impression of British coolness in the face of impending defeat. The Royal Engineers then blew open a gap in the Causeway on the Johor side. But they also blew up the pipeline carrying water from Johor to the island. The siege of Singapore had begun.
In the middle of January, the schools were closed. As the shelling got nearer to the city, my mother proposed that the whole family move to her father's house, which was farther out and so less likely to be hit. I supported the move but told her I would stay and look after the house in Norfolk Road while continuing to report for duty at the Raffles College MAS station. I would not be alone as Koh Teong Koo, our gardener, would stay at Norfolk Road to guard the house while I was on duty at the college. He was also the rickshaw puller who had taken my brothers and sister to and from school every day since 1937. We had built an air-raid shelter, a wooden structure dug into the ground and covered with earth, which my mother had stocked up with rice, salt, pepper, soya bean sauces, salt fish, tinned foods, condensed milk and all the things we might need for a long time. Money was not a problem because the Shell Co. had generously paid my father several months' salary when he was ordered to evacuate the oil depot at Batu Pahat.
The military took over the entire college on 10 February as British forces withdrew, and two days later the MAS unit had to disband. At first I stayed at home, but as the shelling got closer I joined my family at Telok Kurau. The following day we heard distant rifle shots, then some more, closer to us. There had been no sound of big guns, shells or bombs. Curious, I went out by the back gate to the lane abutting the kampong where I used to play with my friends, the fishermen's children. Before I had walked more than 20 yards along the earth track, I saw two figures in dun-colored uniforms, different from the greens and browns of the British forces. They were outlandish figures, small, squat men carrying long rifles with long bayonets. They exuded an awful stink, a smell I will never forget. It was the odor from the great unwashed after two months of fighting along jungle tracks and estate roads from Kota Bharu to Singapore.
A few seconds passed before I realized who they were. Japanese! An immense fear crept over me. But they were looking for enemy soldiers. Clearly I was not one, so they ignored me and pressed on. I dashed back to the house and told my family what I had seen. We closed all the doors and windows, though God knows what protection that could have given us. Rape and rapine were high among the fears that the Japanese forces inspired after their atrocities in China since 1937. But nothing of note happened the rest of that day and night. The British forces were retreating rapidly to the city center and not putting up much of a fight.
The news soon spread that the British had surrendered. The next day, some friends returning from the city reported that looting had broken out. British and other European houses were being stripped by their Malay drivers and gardeners. This aroused great anxiety in my family. What about 28 Norfolk Road, with all our food and other provisions that would now have to see us through for a very long time? With my mother's agreement, I took Teong Koo, the gardener, with me and walked back some eight miles from Telok Kurau to Norfolk Road. We made it in just over two hours. I saw Malays carrying furniture and other items out of the bigger houses along the way. The Chinese looters went for the goods in warehouses, less bulky and more valuable.
The Japanese conquerors also went for loot. In the first few days, anyone in the street with a fountain pen or a wristwatch would soon be relieved of it. Soldiers would go into houses either officially to search, or pretending to do so, but in fact to appropriate any small items that they could keep on their person. At first they also took the best of the bicycles, but they stopped that after a few weeks. They were in Singapore for only a short time before leaving for Java or some other island in the archipelago to do battle and to capture more territories. They could not take their beautiful bicycles with them.
My first encounter with a Japanese soldier took place when I tried to visit an aunt, my mother's younger sister, in Kampong Java Road, just across the Red Bridge over the Bukit Timah canal. As I approached the bridge, I saw a sentry pacing up and down it. Nearby was a group of four or five Japanese soldiers sitting around, probably the other members of his detail. I was sporting a broad-brimmed hat of the kind worn by Australian soldiers, many of which had been discarded in the days before the surrender. I had picked one up, thinking it would be useful during the hard times ahead to protect me from the sun.
As I passed this group of soldiers, I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. But they were not to be denied attention. One soldier barked "Kore, kore!" and beckoned to me. When I reached him, he thrust the bayonet on his rifle through the brim of my hat, knocking it off, slapped me roundly and motioned me to kneel. He then shoved his right boot against my chest and sent me sprawling on the road. As I got up, he signaled that I was to go back the way I had come. I had got off lightly. Many others who did not know the new rules of etiquette and did not bow to Japanese sentries at crossroads or bridges were made to kneel for hours in the sun, holding a heavy boulder over their heads until their arms gave way.
Later that same day a Japanese non-commissioned officer and several soldiers came into the house. They looked it over and, finding only Teong Koo and me, decided it would a suitable billet for a platoon. It was the beginning of a nightmare. I had been treated by Japanese dentists and their nurses at Bras Basah Road who were immaculately clean and tidy. So, too, were the Japanese salesmen and saleswomen at the 10-cent stores in Middle Road. I was unprepared for the nauseating stench of the unwashed clothes and bodies of these Japanese soldiers. They roamed all over the house and the compound. They looked for food, found the provisions my mother had stored, and consumed whatever they fancied, cooking in the compound over open fires. I had no language in which to communicate with them. They made their wishes known with signs and guttural noises. When I was slow in understanding what they wanted, I was cursed and frequently slapped. They were strange beings, unshaven and unkempt, speaking an ugly, aggressive language. They filled me with fear, and I slept fitfully. They left after three days of hell.
While this platoon was camping in the house, British, Indian and Australian forces were marched to captivity. The march started on 17 February 1942, and for two days and one night they tramped past the house and over the Red Bridge on their way to Changi. I sat on my veranda for hours at a time watching these men, my heart heavy as lead. Many looked dejected and despondent, perplexed that they had been beaten so decisively and so easily. The surrendered army was a mournful sight.
There were some who won my respect and admiration. Among them were the Highlanders whom I recognized by their Scottish caps. Even in defeat they held themselves erect and marched in time--"Left Right, Left Right, Left, Left!" shouted the sergeant major. And the Gurkhas were like the Highlanders. They too marched erect, unbroken and doughty in defeat. I secretly cheered them. They left a life-long impression on me. As a result, the Singapore government has employed a Gurkha company for its anti-riot police squad from the 1960s to this day.
Soon after the Japanese soldiers left my house, word went around that all Chinese had to go to a registration center at the Jalan Besar stadium for examination. I saw my neighbor and his family leave and decided it would be wiser for me to go also, for if I were later caught at home the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai, would punish me. So I headed for Jalan Besar with Teong Koo. As it turned out, his cubicle in his coolie-keng, the dormitory he shared with other rickshaw pullers, was within the perimeter enclosed by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of Chinese families were packed into this small area. All exit points were manned by the Kempeitai.
After spending a night in Teong Koo's cubicle, I decided to check out through the exit point, but instead of allowing me to pass, the soldier on duty signaled me to join a group of young Chinese. I felt instinctively that this was ominous, so I asked for permission to return to the cubicle to collect my belongings. He gave it. I went back and lay low in Teong Koo's cubicle for another day and a half. Then I tried the same exit again. This time, for some inexplicable reason, I got through the checkpoint. I was given a "chop" on my left upper arm and on the front of my shirt with a rubber stamp. The kanji or Chinese character jian, meaning "examined," printed on me in indelible ink, was proof that I was cleared. I walked home with Teong Koo, greatly relieved.
I discovered later that those picked out at random at the checkpoint I had passed were taken to the grounds of Victoria School and detained until 22 February, when 40 to 50 lorries arrived to collect them. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were transported to a beach at Tanah Merah Besar, some 10 miles away on the east coast, near Changi Prison. There they were made to disembark, tied together and forced to walk toward the sea. As they did so, Japanese machine-gunners massacred them. Later, to make sure they were dead, each corpse was kicked, bayoneted and abused in other ways. There was no attempt to bury the bodies, which decomposed as they were washed up and down the shore.