Risking death for news

Dr Chew Chin Hin’s (above) father secretly listened to the radio for news, while Ms Pearlyn Verge’s family used Japanese newspapers to feign allegiance with the occupiers.
Dr Chew Chin Hin’s (above) father secretly listened to the radio for news, while Ms Pearlyn Verge’s family used Japanese newspapers to feign allegiance with the occupiers.ST PHOTOS: T. KUMAR
Dr Chew Chin Hin’s father secretly listened to the radio for news, while Ms Pearlyn Verge’s (above) family used Japanese newspapers to feign allegiance with the occupiers.
Dr Chew Chin Hin’s father secretly listened to the radio for news, while Ms Pearlyn Verge’s (above) family used Japanese newspapers to feign allegiance with the occupiers.
Major (Ret) Foong Fook Kay (above) received his news during the Occupation from a co-tenant, while for Mr Wong Hiong Boon relied on chatter at the market or information from friends.
Major (Ret) Foong Fook Kay (above) received his news during the Occupation from a co-tenant, while for Mr Wong Hiong Boon relied on chatter at the market or information from friends.
Major (Ret) Foong Fook Kay received his news during the Occupation from a co-tenant, while for Mr Wong Hiong Boon (above) relied on chatter at the market or information from friends.
Major (Ret) Foong Fook Kay received his news during the Occupation from a co-tenant, while for Mr Wong Hiong Boon (above) relied on chatter at the market or information from friends.

NEWS WAS SCARCE during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, from 1942 to 1945.

Families who tuned in to the radio for news from the BBC risked being tortured or killed if found out by the Japanese.

War survivor Chew Chin Hin recalls his father and six friends taking the chance - but not without precautions.

At least two of the group members would stand watch outside the Akyab Road home of their friend, while the rest huddled round the radio.

The strategy kept them safe because, unknown to them, the Japanese were watching their every move, recalled Dr Chew, 84, emeritus consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He was then 11 years old.

For families without a radio, information came through gossip at the market or from friends, neighbours and even strangers... Most people did not read the Japanese newspapers, including The Syonan Shimbun, as the reports were viewed as propaganda.

"One day, the men standing guard spotted a man climbing a coconut tree with a pair of binoculars to see what was going on inside the house. One of those on guard quietly went inside and told the rest to conceal the radio."

His father Benjamin Chew, also a physician, was a good pianist. "He started playing the piano and the others gathered round and sang," recounted Dr Chew, whose family lived in a bungalow in Jalan Tan Tock Seng during the Occupation.

Following the scare, the men stopped listening to the radio for a few weeks. "If they had been caught, that would mean the torture chamber at the YMCA," Dr Chew said. The much-feared Kempeitai, or Japanese military police, were headquartered at the YMCA in Orchard Road, where interrogations and torture were carried out.

For families without a radio, information came through gossip at markets or from friends, neighbours and even strangers.

"Even when meeting someone you know slightly, you would ask what's going on. And when a stranger talks, you listen," recalled Mr Wong Hiong Boon, 86, a retired art teacher who lives in a Housing Board flat in Ang Mo Kio.

A 13-year-old boy then, he and his family lived in his aunt's attap house on stilts in Lowland Road, where Kovan MRT station now stands.

Most people did not read the Japanese newspapers, including The Syonan Shimbun, as the reports were viewed as propaganda.

Ms Pearlyn Verge's family, however, found them a useful ploy for showing their allegiance to Japan.

"We bought the paper and put it on the table, making it look like we were reading it," says Ms Verge, 85, who lived in a Telok Kurau bungalow during the war years.

Newspapers returned to being a reliable source of information after the Japanese surrendered in 1945, but many families could not afford them.

Major (Ret) Foong Fook Kay, 81, said that, as a young boy, he received news from a co-tenant who occasionally bought a daily newspaper.

Their families lived in makeshift rooms in a Neil Road flat.

Like everyone, his education was interrupted by the war and it as only at age 17, when he returned to school, that he picked up his first newspaper.

For Ms Verge, the habit of reading The Straits Times began at age 16: "Until today, I swear by its news." • ST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Risking death for news'. Print Edition | Subscribe