The Singapore Story

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Day-to-day life had to go on under the Japanese occupation. At first everybody felt lost. My father had no work, I had no college, my three brothers and sister had no school. There was little social activity. We felt danger all around us. Knowing somebody in authority, whether a Japanese or a Taiwanese interpreter with links to the Japanese, was very important and could be a life-saver. His note with his signature and seal on it certified that you were a decent citizen and that he vouched for your good character. This was supposed to be valuable when you were stopped and checked by sentries. But it was safest to stay at home and avoid contact and conflict with authority.

One of my first outings was into town. I walked two miles to the second-hand bookshops in Bras Basah Road that specialized in school textbooks. On the way, I saw a crowd near the main entrance to Cathay cinema. Joining the crowd, I saw the head of a Chinese man placed on a small board stuck on a pole, on the side of which was a notice in Chinese characters. The man had been beheaded because he had been caught looting, and anybody who disobeyed the law would be dealt with in the same way.

Late in 1943 I read an advertisement in the Syonan Shimbun inserted by the Japanese information or propaganda department called the Hodobu, which was located in Cathay Building. It wanted English-language editors. I turned up to be interviewed by an American-born Japanese, George Takemura, a tall, lean, fair-skinned man who spoke English with an American accent.

My job was to run through the cables of Allied news agencies: Reuters, UP, AP, Central News Agency of China and TASS. These cables, sent out in Morse code, had been intercepted by Malay radio operators. Radio signals were not clear in the later afternoons and early evenings, and because reception was poor, many words were garbled or lost. I had to decipher them and fill in the missing bits, guided by the context, as in a word puzzle. The cables then had to be collated under the various battle fronts and sent from the top floor of Cathay Building to the floor below, where they would be revamped for broadcasting.

It was a strange life. My work would begin at 7 p.m. Tokyo time, which was 5:30 p.m. Singapore time and still daylight. Radio reception was poor until about midnight Tokyo time. So the first shift from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. was hard work, but one got home early to sleep. The period 12 a.m. to 9 am was broken into two shifts, with a two- to three-hour break in between. Reception was better, and there was less puzzling over missing words or parts of words, but it meant sleeping at awkward hours.

From the end of 1943, food became scarcer and scarcer. Reduced to eating old, moldy, worm-eaten stocks mixed with Malayan-grown rice, we had to find substitutes. My mother, like many others, stretched what little we could get with maize and millet and strange vegetables we would not normally have touched, like young shoots of sweet potato and tapioca plants cooked in coconut milk. They could be quite palatable, but they had bulk without much nutrition. It was amazing how hungry my brothers and I became one hour after each meal. Meat was a luxury. There was little beef or mutton. Pork was easier to buy and we could raise chickens ourselves, but there were no leftovers to feed them.

Meanwhile, inflation had been increasing month by month, and by mid-1944 it was no longer possible to live on my salary. But there were better and easier pickings to be had as a broker on the black market. The brokers operated mainly in High Street or Chulia Street, off Raffles Place. I joined them in 1944, and learned how to hoard items, especially small pieces of jewelry going cheap. I would buy them, hold them for a few weeks, and then sell them as prices inevitably went up. It was easy to make money if one had the right connections.

The key to survival was improvisation. One business I started changed the course of my life. While brokering on the black market, I met Yong Nyuk Lin, a Raffles College science graduate. I had been asked by Basrai Brothers, Indian stationers in Chulia Street, if I could get them stationery gum, which was in short supply--there was little left from pre-war stock. Could I perhaps make some myself? I asked Nyuk Lin whether he could make gum. He said he could, using tapioca flour and carbolic acid. So I financed his experiments.

Nyuk Lin's method was to take a big cylindrical pot, fill it with tapioca flour, and place the pot in a big wok of boiling oil. He used palm oil, which was freely available and cheap. He kept the oil at a constant high temperature to heat the tapioca flour, which needed to be stirred all the while until it became a deep golden brown dextrine. It looked and smelled like beautiful caramel. He added water to the "caramel," which dissolved it into mucilage or gum, and finally carbolic acid as preservative to prevent mold from setting in. The gum was poured into empty Scotts Emulsion bottles, which I discovered were plentiful and cheap. I marketed the gum under the name "Stikfas" and had an attractive label designed by an artistic friend with the word in light brown brushwork against a white background.

The gum turned a decent profit, and we made it in two centers. One was my home, with my mother and sister helping; the other was Nyuk Lin's home, where he was helped by his wife and his wife's younger sister, Kwa Geok Choo, the only person who had done better than me at Raffles College. She was at home, at a loose end, doing domestic chores as there were no maids. Making gum was one chore that gave her pin money, and my visits to check on production led to a friendship that developed over the months.

The gum-making lasted for some six to seven months until late 1944. By then, the war was going badly for the Japanese. Few merchant ships came through, and trade was at a standstill; business dwindled, and offices did not need gum. I discontinued gum-making, but continued to visit Choo at her Tiong Bahru home to chat and keep up the friendship.

I felt certain the British would soon push their way down the Malayan peninsula and feared that the recapture of Singapore would mean street-to-street and house-to-house fighting to the bitter end, with enormous civilian casualties. I decided it would be better to get out of Singapore while things were still calm, and I could resign from the Hodobu without arousing suspicion over my motives. I applied for leave and went up to Malaya to reconnoiter Penang and the Cameron Highlands, to find out which was the safer place.

Although I saw little military activity as I wandered around Penang, I ruled it out. It would be a logical stepping stone for the British forces on their way down to Singapore. There would be street fighting, building by building. So I went on to the Cameron Highlands where Maurice Baker, my friend at Raffles College, had his home in Ringlet village at 3,200 feet. He and some friends were living off their savings, planting vegetables and root crops. I paid for my whole trip by selling at an enormous profit half a dozen steel hoes purchased in Singapore. The farmers needed them badly. On my return journey I bought a basket of beautiful vegetables unobtainable in Singapore, and spent a day-and-a-half guarding them on the train. Once back, I discussed the next move with my mother. We decided it would be best to move to the Cameron Highlands. I gave one month's notice to the Hodobu.

As I took the lift down in Cathay Building the day before I stopped work, the lift attendant, whom I had befriended, told me to be careful; my file in the Kempeitai office had been taken out for attention. I felt a deep chill. I wondered what could have provoked this and braced myself for the coming interrogation. From that moment, I sensed that I was being followed. Day and night, a team tailed me. I went through all the possible reasons in my mind and could only conclude that someone had told the Kempeitai I was pro-British and had been leaking news that the war was going badly for the Japanese, and that was why I was leaving. At least two men at any one time would be outside the shophouse in Victoria Street where we stayed after moving from Norfolk Road.

I endured this cat-and-mouse game for some eight weeks. At times, in the quiet of the early morning, at 2 or 3 a.m., a car would pass by on Victoria Street and stop near its junction with Bras Basah Road. It is difficult to describe the cold fear that seized me at the thought that they had come for me. Like most, I had heard of the horrors of the torture inflicted by the Kempeitai. But one day, two months after it began, the surveillance ceased. It was an unnerving experience.

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