While the British colonial government might have succeeded in preventing the majority of the colonists from straying into Singapore, droves and droves of marauding Japanese soldiers thronged the island in February 1942. Somehow the British, in their omnipotence, thought the jungle north of Singapore would protect them from the advancing Japanese troops. Using bicycles, hordes of Japanese intruders swooped down the Malay Peninsula from Siam. They were unstoppable, like a life-threatening avalanche, lusting for power and everything along the way.
Ironically, the jungle magnanimously provided the enemy with shelter and food. And Singapore, once the towering, impregnable colonial center of British operations in the Far East, surrendered unconditionally within two weeks to the Japanese. Eighty-five thousand troops could not protect Singapore. Soon, at the downtown Ford Motor Company factory, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, pounding on the negotiating table, demanded, “All I want to know is, are our terms acceptable or not? Do you or do you not surrender unconditionally? Yes or no?”
Syonan-to, Light of the South Island, replaced the name of Singapore. One day the British, the next day the aggressive Japanese had become the new masters.
For many, blissfully behind closed doors, it was an auspicious time to celebrate the demise of the myth of the white man’s dominance and superiority in that part of the world. For the moment the allegiance shifted radically from England to Japan. From God Save The King to Hail to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. All now kowtowed reverently to the north, for the emperor was believed to be descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.
In Operation Clean-up, those Chinese suspected or accused of anti-Japanese involvement after Japan attacked China in 1937 were reported to have been massacred by the Japanese military. Decapitated heads of criminals were on public display. Those suspected or found with pictures of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, or the British royal family, or listening to radio news, could face excruciating death from the swords or the infamous tortures of the Japanese.
Japanese brutalities, committed by the Kempeitai, the secret military police, against innocent men and women are well documented. The records of their atrocities against humanity are miles long on paper.
The Japanese occupation meant snuffing out the fire of dreams and aspirations of many young people. It meant the untimely termination of normal education, snatching away the key to their future. For many it was like being struck by a sudden, irreversible terminal illness. Many never fully recovered to pursue their education, doomed to a life of servitude. Not lack of ambition but dire poverty depressed many families.
Yes, there was widespread economic collapse, more like havoc or debris caused by a devastating storm. Young women, in particular, were not safe from the marauding hands of the Japanese soldiers. Many hid like earthworms from menacing birds, bandaging their robust bosoms to fool the hungry eyes or wearing a disguise of the opposite sex. Healthy young men could be conscripted for military service or labor, or simply carried off for suspected communist sympathies. Some simply disappeared.
Many could only curse the invaders.
Many swiftly descended into the hell of meaninglessness.
Fear threatened like the unpredictable monsoon rain, never knowing what utter annihilation it might bring to those it touched. And many were vulnerable to the onslaught of hopelessness, despair, and near starvation. They lived like zombies for the moment. They searched in vain for a silver lining in the dark clouds of desperation and doubt.
The Japanese attempt to replace or supplant with everything Japanese—its language, spirit, morals, and manners—was anything but tentative and superficial. Most things Japanese failed to take root in the native soil. Greater Asia under a Japanese military leadership was a false promise. The reality was one of insensitivity and extreme harshness to the people, failing to galvanize their support without which it was impossible for the Japanese to establish a new order in Singapore or Malaya.
We all know it took two atomic bombs with unprecedented destructive power on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender and return to their own islands.
Japanese troops officially surrendered to Lord Mountbatten in Singapore on August 29, 1945. And marking the unconditional surrender of Japan on board the American battleship USS Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander, had this to say on September 2: “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”
With the war finally over, Malayans and Singaporeans sighed a collective sense of relief, like tasting the first drops of water after a severe, prolonged drought.
After a brief Japanese occupation, the British returned to the island of Singapore.
By then people sought self-determination and independence from colonial rule, which led to full internal self-government in 1959.
And also in 1959, about fifty-plus years after Grandpa’s arrival in Malaya (1903), a grandson was about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Singapore, once a temptation—like wine to an alcoholic—to Grandpa and his fellow “colonists.”
And I was tempted no less to taste this once forbidden fruit, driven by the same human hunger for a better life and future.