The Singapore Story

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On 15 August, the Japanese Emperor broadcast to his subjects and announced the surrender. We heard this almost immediately, because people had become bold and many were listening to Allied radio broadcasts, especially the BBC. For three weeks after the Emperor's broadcast, there were no signs of the British arriving. It was an unnatural situation. Unlike the British, the Japanese troops had not been defeated and demoralized in battle. They were despondent and confused, but still very much in charge and still had the power to hurt us. When locals who could not contain their elation celebrated their defeat, Japanese soldiers passing by would gate-crash their parties and slap the merrymakers. The Japanese army expected to be called to account by the British and punished for its misdeeds, but it was also resentful and apprehensive that the population would turn on its officers when they arrived. Shots were reported to have been heard from Japanese officer's messes, for several could not accept the surrender and preferred to commit hara-kiri, either Japanese-style with a dagger or, less painfully, with a revolver. But the locals were fortunate. The Japanese did not kill civilians, as far as I know, nor were there ugly or brutal incidents. They left the population alone until the British took over. Their military discipline held.

The three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. The Japanese demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all. They were hated by almost everyone, but everyone knew their power to do harm and so everyone adjusted.

Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare. People could leave their front doors open at night. Every household had a head, and every group of 10 households had its head, and they were supposed to patrol their area from dusk till sunrise. But it was a mere formality. They carried only sticks and there were no offenses to report--the penalties were too heavy. As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime.

I had not yet read Mao's dictum that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun," but I knew that Japanese brutality, Japanese guns, Japanese bayonets and swords, and Japanese terror and torture settled the argument as to who was in charge, and could make people change their behavior, even their loyalties. The Japanese not only demanded and got their obedience; they forced them to adjust to a long-term prospect of Japanese rule, so that they had their children educated to fit the new system, its language, its habits and its values, in order to be useful and make a living.

In the confused interregnum between the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945 and the establishment of effective British control of the island toward the end of September, anti-Japanese groups took the law into their own hands. They lynched, murdered, tortured or beat up informers, torturers, tormentors and accomplices--or suspected accomplices--of the Japanese. I remember the thudding of feet as people were chased in broad daylight down the back lanes around our two homes in Victoria Street and China Building. I heard the sound of blows and screams as they were knifed and killed.

On Wednesday, 12 September 1945, at about 10:30 in the morning, I walked to City Hall, where the surrender ceremony would take place. I saw a group of seven high-ranking Japanese officers arrive from High Street, accompanied by British military police wearing their red caps and armbands. The crowd hooted, whistled and jeered but the Japanese were impassive and dignified, looking straight ahead. Some 45 minutes later, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British commander-in-chief, South East Asia Command, appeared, wearing his white naval uniform. He raised his naval cap high with his right hand and gave three cheers to the troops that formed the cordon in front of the steps. He loved uniforms, parades and ceremonies.

These were moments of great exhilaration. The Japanese occupation nightmare was over and people thought the good times were about to return. The signs were favorable. The troops were generous with their cigarettes--Players Navy Cut in paper packets, unobtainable for the last three years. Good quality beer, Johnnie Walker whisky and Gordon's dry gin found their way into the market, and we believed that soon there would be plenty of rice, fruit, vegetables, meat and canned foods.

By early 1946, however, people realized that there was to be no return to the old peaceful, stable, free-and-easy Singapore. The city was packed with troops in uniform. They filled the newly opened cafes, bars and cabarets. The pre-war colonial business houses could not restart immediately, for their British employees had died or were recuperating from internment. Ship arrivals were infrequent, and goods were scarce in Britain itself. It looked as if would be many years before the pre-war flow of commodities resumed. It was a world in turmoil where the hucksters flourished. Much of the day-to-day business was still done on the black--now the free--market.

All this while, I had also been preoccupied over what I was to do about my uncompleted education and my growing attachment to Choo. I discussed the matter with my mother. We decided that, with her savings and jewelry, my earnings from the black market and my contract work, the family could pay for my law studies in Britain.

On New Year's Eve, I took Choo to a party for young people at Mandalay Villa in Amber Road. Just before the party broke up, I led her out into the garden facing the sea. I told her that I no longer planned to return to Raffles College but would go to England to read law. I asked her whether she would wait for me until I came back three years later after being called to the Bar. Choo asked if I knew she was two-and-a-half years older than I was. I said I knew and had considered this carefully. I was mature for my age, and most of my friends were older than me anyway. Moreover, I wanted someone my equal, not someone who was not really grown up and needed looking after, and I was not likely to find another girl who was my equal and who shared my interests. She said she would wait. We did not tell my parents. It would have been too difficult to get them to agree to such a long commitment.

The Britannic was a 65,000-ton cunard liner that sailed across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York before the war. No ship as large or as fast did the Southampton to Singapore run. It was packed with troops on their way home for demobilization. There were some 40 Asiatics on board, most of them Chinese, sleeping twice as many to a cabin as would have been normal for paying passengers. I was glad to be one of them.

I had no law textbooks with me to prepare myself for my studies, so I spent my time playing poker with some of the Hong Kong students. It was a relatively innocent pastime. I was shocked to see the unabashed promiscuity of some 40 or 50 servicewomen, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, who flirted with the officers. One night, a Hong Kong student, his eyes popping out of his head, told me they were unashamedly making love on the lifeboat deck. I was curious and went up to see for myself. What a sight it was! The deck was a hive of activity, with couples locked in passionate embraces scattered all over it. Some were a little less indelicate. They untied the canvas covers of the lifeboats to get inside them for a little privacy. But to see dozens of men and women openly engaging in sex contrasted sharply with my memory of the Japanese soldiers queuing up outside the "comfort house" at Cairnhill Road. "French letters," now called condoms, littered the deck.

[In London] I was suffering from culture shock before the phrase was coined. The climate, the clothes, the food, the people, the habits, the manners, the streets, the geography, the travel arrangements--everything was different. I was totally unprepared except for the English language, a smattering of English literature and previous interaction with British colonials.

For a large bedsitter, I paid the princely sum of 6 a week, a big amount for someone who had stopped earning. Fortunately, it included breakfast. There was a gas fire and a retractable gas ring in the room, and I had to put shillings into a meter to light the fire and cook for myself. I was desperately unhappy about food. It was rationed, and the restaurants where I could eat without coupons were expensive. I had disastrous experiences with boiling milk, which spilt over, and frying bacon and steaks that filled the room with powerful smells. The odors refused to go away for hours even though, in spite of the cold, I opened the sash window and the door to create a through draft. They clung to the bedclothes and the curtains. It was awful.

I was thoroughly unhappy over the little things I had always taken for granted in Singapore. My family provided everything I needed. My shoes were polished, my clothes were washed and ironed, my food was prepared. All I had to do was to express my preferences. Now I had to do everything for myself. It was a physically exhausting life, moreover, with much time spent on the move from place to place. I was fatigued from walking, and traveling on buses and tubes left me without the energy for quiet study and contemplation.

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