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Singapore remembers.

JAPAN's new found freedom to dispatch troops overseas for the first time since 1945 has proved far from welcome news in those Asian countries which the Japanese army over-ran and occupied during the last war. The fact that the parliamentary bill authorising this radical departure from post-war policy, which was passed by the Diet in the teeth of strong left-wing opposition, merely empowers the government to provide up to 2,000 men for non-combatant duty in support of United Nations' peacekeeping activities has done little to allay fears of a Japanese military revival. Even the Japanese themselves have their doubts, despite assurances by Mr. Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, that the change of policy would enable the country to play a bigger role in international affairs. More than half of the population, if opinion polls are to be believed, are opposed to it and, given the choice, would prefer to steer clear of involvement in foreign conflicts. The Japanese so-called Defence Force, with the world's fourth largest defence budget, has nearly a quarter of a million men under arms. Any expansion of its role or capability is clearly seen by neighbouring states as cause for concern if not downright alarm.

Memories of the infamous record of the Imperial army are still fresh nearly half a century after the Hiroshima bomb ended the war. Though Malaysia which was invaded in 1942 professes to see no problem so long as Japan acts only under the auspices of the United Nations, lingering doubts persist about Tokyo's motives. |We have had experience of Japanese imperialism', a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, |and I am sure everyone in South East Asia is very concerned about Japan embarking on another military adventure'. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister, put it more bluntly. Allowing the Japanese military to serve abroad again would, he said, be like giving liqueur chocolates to an alcoholic. The same fears have surfaced in China, South Korea and the Philippines coupled, in the case of Communist North Korea, with denunciations of |Japan's wild ambition to become a military power'.

Nowhere is the memory of Japanese atrocities more deeply-rooted than in Singapore where the fiftieth anniversary of the island's humiliating surrender has been marked by a series of exhibitions depicting the horror and deprivation of the occupation. The Japanese who had earmarked Singapore as the hub of their grandiose plan for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, immediately re-named it Syonan-To (Light of the South). Its fate had been sealed when General Yamashita, known as the Tiger of Malaya, over-ran the Malayan peninsula in just seventy days, bottling up British, Australian and Indian troops on Singapore island. The formal act of surrender of that |impregnable' fortress, signed by General Percival, the British commander, on February 15, 1942 in, of all places, the Ford car factory, was described by Churchill as the greatest catastrophe in British military history.

General Yamashita said it was bicycles and good roads which helped to bring about such a famous victory. |Bicycles and the excellent paved roads built by the British were our secret weapons,' he exulted. His Chief of Staff wrote: |Singapore, the British stronghold which for over a hundred years had dominated Asia, now lay before our eyes pawing the ground in its last moments'. In the triumphal celebrations which followed the capture of this mighty citadel the Imperial Guards led a huge victory parade along Singapore's main processional way, Orchard Road, banners and regimental flags held aloft proclaimed the Samurai code: |The Bushido spirit will live forever'.

In theory this ought to have reassured the populace that they had nothing to fear but if such hopes were entertained they were short-lived. The spirit of Bushido was enshrined in an official pamphlet issued by Imperial Army Headquarters to 40,000 officers and men as they embarked for Malaya but regrettably it did nothing to restrain the ruthless brutality with which the campaign was conducted. |We must,' it declared, |achieve the satisfaction of our just demands with no thought of leniency to Europeans unless they be Germans or Italians. But pillaging, molesting women or the heedless slaughter or maiming of people who offer no resistance, or any action which may sully the reputation of Japan as a country of moral rectitude should be condemned by all in the strongest terms. You must do nothing to impair your dignity as a soldier of His Majesty the Emperor in His Majesty's army. You must discipline yourselves to correct behaviour and, in particular, show compassion towards the old and towards women and children ... Treat the natives with kindness but do not expect too much of them. Three hundred million natives have been treated as slaves by 300,000 white men and if you stop to wonder for what past sins they now groan beneath the white man's oppressive rule, you may well pity them'.

Such solicitude for the downtrodden did not extend to the |overseas Chinese' who were categorised along with the hapless Europeans as public enemy number one and thereby excluded from the theoretical protection of civilians enjoined upon the soldiery. They had, in the words of the official guidance, emigrated from China in large numbers over the years and gradually risen from humble positions as clerks, errand boys or coolies to become men of wealth. They had done this, it said, through deceiving the notoriously lazy natives. Worse still, they had increased their power by colluding with the British, Americans, French and Dutch. There were now four million Chinese colonists in the whole area, many of whom contributed military funds to Peking. They would, said the Tokyo directive ominously, have to be offered guidance and given an opportunity for self-examination. In concert with the Europeans they had steadily extorted money from the native population and, since they had no racial or national consciousness and no enthusiasm outside making money, it would be difficult to enlist their co-operation in any scheme which did not promise personal profit.

Having rounded up and imprisoned more than 85,000 British, Australian and Indian troops as well as several thousand civilians, including women and children, the Japanese military administration rapidly set about turning Syonan-To into an advanced base to be used as a springboard for the conquest of Burma and India. Singaporeans watched with mounting apprehension as the Rising Sun was hoisted over Fort Canning, the former British military headquarters. An English-language newspaper, the Syonan Times, appeared on the streets from which imperialist symbols such as the statue of Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, had been systematically removed. The Kempetai, the dreaded military police took over the YMCA in the centre of the city as their headquarters. Among their other activities they began enforcing a decree which prescribed death by beheading for anyone caught listening to the BBC or the Voice of America.

During the reign of terror in Malaya, which then included Singapore, more than 40,000 civilians and military -- some estimates put the figure closer to 70,000 -- were murdered. There are original authenticated photographs in the National Museum exhibition showing roped groups of the condemned being led away for execution and later digging their own graves at gunpoint before being shot. Other exhibits include pictures of Indian Army soldiers, mainly Sikhs, being tied to stakes and shot and bayoneted, probably for refusing to join the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army. On a nearby wall there is a list of thirty-two tortures practised by the Kempetai, ranging from whipping to covering the victim's face with burning ash.

The Chinese, as was to he expected, were among the first to suffer. Within days all males between 12 and 60 were rounded up for screening. This took the form of |purification' parades where individuals suspected of being anti-Japanese were pointed out by informers who were masked to hide their identity. Those not |cleansed' were taken to the YMCA for investigation by the Kempetai and frequently tortured before being led away to execution. Some of the mass graves in which they were buried were only discovered twenty years after the war. Less horrific but equally harrowing exhibits are displayed in the Changi Museum, which stands alongside the forbidding high walls of the notorious jail, dedicated to the British, Australian and Indian prisoners-of-war who lived -- and died -- in Japanese captivity. |During their darkest years,' reads the caption on one exhibit, |religion was a source of strength and hope which sustained the half-starved prisoners and enabled them to build new places of worship despite being moved from one place to another. Often when men died they were found to have only two or three personal possessions -- a pair of ragged shorts, the photograph of a loved one and a slip of paper saying they had received instruction for Holy Communion and would be applying for Confirmation on their release'. A replica of one of the small chapels they built which will contain an altar cross also made by the prisoners from a 4.5 inch howitzer shell case has been placed alongside the museum.

Many Singaporeans, the Straits Times reported in a recent series of articles marking the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, are still haunted by the images of war, images of bayoneted soldiers and beheaded civilians. |I can still picture the countless bodies of British and Indian soldiers near the scene of a ferocious hand-to-hand battle,' said one. Even after ten days there were bodies all over the place. It was a horrible sight. Even worse was the sight of British soldiers bayoneted against trees. I still ask myself what kind of people would do such a thing. Wasn't shooting the soldiers bad enough?' One man recalled his brother-in-law's being taken away by the military police, tortured and killed for listening to the BBC and Voice of America broadcasts reporting Allied victories in the Pacific. Getting slapped in the face for not bowing to sentries and the dread of being beaten or even beheaded when falsely accused of wrong-doing were, said another, constant sources of fear which gripped the civilian population, regardless of whether they were Chinese, Malayan or Indian.

Many Japanese are among the thousands of visitors to the various anniversary exhibitions of which there are at least four, not counting Fort Canning, the empty, cavernous underground headquarters of the British high command. Apart from the few exhibits on the walls, this remains largely as it was at the time of the surrender half a century ago. What impression the Japanese form as they move in silent contemplation from one grim exhibit to another is hard to divine but it seems likely that most, if asked, would say they had no idea such crimes had been committed in their name. And improbable as this sounds it may well be true, indeed almost certainly is true in the case of the younger generation. In post-war Japan such unpalatable facts as the rape of Nanking in the 1930s and, in the last war, the forced abduction of young Korean women to serve as prostitutes in army brothels, the use of prisoners-of-war as human guinea pigs in germ warfare experiments and the rest of a long litany of barbaric acts including mass executions, were expunged from the history books. Japanese Prime Ministers have become well accustomed to listening to protests about, and offering apologies for, such crimes committed during the reign of terror loosed by the Emperor's legions as they rampaged through Asia in the 1930s and '40s.

Today in Singapore, dynamic, prosperous and self-confident state that it has become, the scars of war have healed. The Japanese may not be loved but neither are they hated -- and anyway, they are back in force. Not only are they the largest expatriate community but at least a million of them, tourists and businessmen, are expected this year. Street maps are printed in English and Japanese. |We would not welcome Japanese hegemony', a government minister remarked, |but we could live with it. We do business with anyone it is in our interests to do business with,' he added thoughtfully, mentally substituting, so to speak, the spirit of Nissan for the spirit of Bushido.

[George Evans, a journalist, was serving with the Indian Army in South East Asia at the time of the Japanese surrender.]
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Title Annotation:Singapore recalls Japanese atrocities during World War II
Author:Evans, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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