It may be 75 years, but the events and feelings around the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, including the rise of the Indian National Army and Sino-Japan hostilities, still resonate today.
Amid the solemn commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II and the controversy over the naming of the Syonan Gallery last week, another anniversary passed unmarked.
On Feb 17, 1942, two days after the British surrendered, the Indian prisoners of war (POWs) were paraded in Farrer Park. The British commanding officer, Colonel Hunt, handed custody of them to Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, who made a short speech in English. Fujiwara was followed on the podium by Captain Mohan Singh, a former officer of the 1/14 Punjabis captured at the Battle of Jitra. After a stirring oration, Mohan Singh declared that they were forming an Indian National Army (INA) to fight for a free India. He asked the assembled POWs whether they would join up. Some 20,000 did so.
There is a tendency to view the fall of Singapore and subsequent events in black and white. In contrast to the war in Europe, which can justifiably be depicted as a struggle to defeat a vicious, evil regime, the war in Asia was much more nuanced. Nothing illustrates the shades of grey more vividly than the history of the INA.
The INA that was formed at Farrer Park was not the first. The Germans had previously established a Free India Legion (Legion Freies Indien) from Indian POWs taken in North Africa. This was done at the instigation of Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, who in an epic escape had made his way from India through Afghanistan and onwards to Germany in 1941.
That Free India Legion was known as the Azad Hind Fauj (Free India Army), the name which the Indian National Army also bore. Bose saw the enemies of Britain as allies in his quest for Indian independence.
Meanwhile, in late 1942, the British had detained nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru in order to quash the Quit India Movement. Thirty British battalions were deployed in the sub-continent on internal security duties. Bose recognised a better opportunity to carry on the fight closer to home. Leaving Europe, he travelled by submarine to Sumatra and thence to Japan.
In July 1943, Bose arrived in Singapore to revitalise the independence struggle. The first INA under Mohan Singh had become moribund due to disagreements with the Japanese over its role. Mohan Singh himself was exiled to Pulau Ubin. A mass rally was held on the Padang. Bose had the gift of oratory. He exuded magnetism. He worked up the crowd to a fever pitch. "Our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on the graveyard of the British Empire - the Lal Qila, the Red Fort of Delhi! Chalo Delhi! On to Delhi!" he declared.
The crowd responded rapturously: "Azad Hind zindabad! Long live Free India!" The Indians called him Netaji, the beloved leader. Among that crowd was the late president S R Nathan, who told me once in conversation how electrifying Netaji was.
On Oct 21, 1943, the Provisional Government of Free India, Azri Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, was proclaimed in the Cathay Building. The INA was to be the instrument for freeing India from British rule. Netaji did not want an army consisting only of POWs. He urged Indians in Malaya and Burma to volunteer. Many of the recruits for the INA came from Singapore. Like it or not, the Azad Hind Fauj is part of our history.
The INA saw action in Burma, where it was decimated at Imphal. When the war ended, the returning British destroyed the INA monument at the Esplanade. To them, the members of the INA were renegades. Three senior officers - Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Saghal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon - were put on trial at the Red Fort in Delhi at the end of 1945. They were charged with waging war against the King-Emperor. Among counsel for the defence was Nehru. There were demonstrations in India. The three accused were convicted, but the sentences were remitted and they were released. India was in ferment. In January 1947, India became independent.
Bose did not live to see this. He reportedly died in a plane crash in Taiwan on Aug 18, 1945. To the British, he was a traitor. But in his home country, he is considered to be hero enough for Kolkata's airport to be named the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport.
HUMAN SIDE OF THE OCCUPATION
In Singapore, memories of the war and Occupation still stir up strong emotions, as the unhappiness over the naming of the Syonan Gallery demonstrates. The atrocities committed by the Japanese Army and Kempeitai are well-documented: a Singapore War Crimes Trials portal containing details of the trials was set up by Dr Cheah Wui Ling and Ms Ng Pei Yi, with support from the National Heritage Board and Singapore Academy of Law. The Sook Ching massacres and the extortion of a $50 million "donation" from the Chinese community left indelible scars.
However, it would be a mistake to view this period only from a single perspective. For many people in occupied Singapore, it probably made little difference whether they were ruled by the British King-Emperor or the Japanese Syowa Emperor. The new rulers did not treat all their subjects equally. The Malays and especially the Indians were courted. The Chinese were persecuted.
Nor were all Japanese uniformly bad. Shinozaki Marmoru, a Japanese civilian official, gave out passes to many who had been caught up in the Sook Ching operation and later assisted people in Singapore to mitigate the rigours of the Occupation. There were also many who found that their Japanese superiors were human, and even humane; former president Nathan was one. My father-in-law was another.
My uncle, Professor Kiang Ai Kim, said in an oral history interview that the Occupation was not as oppressive as is normally depicted; as long as one kept out of politics, the Japanese authorities left people alone.
These voices were muted after the Japanese surrender in 1945: firstly out of fear of communist death squads which ran riot in the interregnum between the surrender in August and the return of the British in September; secondly, in order to avoid being accused by the colonial rulers of collaboration with the enemy, as some community leaders had been.
ROOTS OF ETHNIC SUSPICION
The legacy of ethnic suspicion between the Chinese and Malay communities in Malaya has its roots in the period of the Occupation. The main resistance to the Japanese came from the Chinese community. Contrary to the misconceptions of Occidentally-oriented writers, politicians and historians, the war in Asia did not begin when Pearl Harbour was attacked in December 1942. China had been fighting Japanese aggression since 1937. Japanese persecution of the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore was a continuation of that war, as was the resistance mounted by the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which was overwhelmingly Chinese in composition.
In Singapore, memories of the war and Occupation still stir up strong emotions, as the unhappiness over the naming of the Syonan Gallery demonstrates. The atrocities committed by the Japanese Army and Kempeitai are well-documented...
However, it would be a mistake to view this period only from a single perspective.
When the Japanese surrendered, the MPAJA came out of the jungle and exacted retribution on "collaborators", who were often Malays and Indians. There were Chinese-Malay clashes in the peninsula. Fear of being sold out by the British to the Chinese led to the rise of ethnic-Malay nationalism, which continues until today and occasionally roils our bilateral relations with our closest neighbour.
When they saw that the war was lost, the Japanese encouraged nationalism in the former European colonies, not only in Malaya but also in the Dutch East Indies. This is not to accept the revisionist view of Japanese ultra-nationalists, disturbingly expressed in the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, that Japan gave freedom to the colonised peoples of Asia. The independence of India and Indonesia was not a Japanese war aim; it was a side-effect of Japan's defeat.
If Japan had won, Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia would have remained under Japanese rule like Shantung and the Caroline, Marshall and Mariana Islands which had been taken over from Germany after World War I. In a supreme irony, the British used Indian troops to help restore Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia in late 1945.
The antipathy against the British of the generation that fought to expel the Dutch no doubt contributed much to their opposition to the formation of Malaysia and the undeclared war known as Konfrontasi.
Even today, memories of Konfrontasi can disturb our relations with our neighbour, as demonstrated by the controversy over the naming of an Indonesian frigate after two marines who were responsible for the MacDonald House bombing.
The most significant legacy of the war is the fraught relationship between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese learnt from the Western colonial powers that they could gain respect only if they had colonies, Taiwan was annexed after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95; Manchukuo was prised from China in 1932; and in 1937, full-scale war broke out when Japan invaded.
The West has not recognised the sacrifices that China made during that period from 1939-45, nor China's contribution to the ultimate victory. Had the millions of troops and auxiliaries tied down in China been available for an invasion of India, with the support of the INA, the world would look very different today.
As a great and ancient nation, China deserves and demands respect. China is returning to its historic position in the world after a century of humiliation. The arguments over specks of land in the East China Sea are part of that process of adjustment.
History makes the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands so much more intractable. If, heaven forbid, hostilities were to break out, where would Singaporeans stand - especially if the PRC evokes the memory of the war and demands that ethnic Chinese take their side against a historic enemy?
Three-quarters of a century may have elapsed since the fall of Singapore, but we still feel the reverberations of that fall today. It started a process that led to the creation of the world we live in now.
History is not just for historians. In order to unpick the knotty problems that face us in the 21st century, it is vital to know how those knots got tied in the first place and to take a dispassionate and nuanced view of a period that still evokes strong passions.
Correction note: An earlier version of the article said erroneously that the Singapore War Crimes Trials portal was set up by the Faculty of Law of the National University of Singapore. We are sorry for the error.
The writer is Chairman, Society of International Law (Singapore) and author of The Devil To Pay, The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea and The Devil's Circle, novels set in the period from the invasion of Malaya in 1941 to the aftermath of the Japanese surrender in 1945.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'The fall of Singapore: Shades of grey'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.