Eurasians who defended Singapore and the Empire chronicled in new book

Chronicling the attempts of Straits Settlements Eurasian men who took responsibility for the defence of the British Empire, On Parade was launched by Singapore Management University on Nov 27, 2018.
Chronicling the attempts of Straits Settlements Eurasian men who took responsibility for the defence of the British Empire, On Parade was launched by Singapore Management University on Nov 27, 2018.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Riots fought on the streets and countryside between the Hokkien and Teochew communities in May 1854 resulted in the deaths of 500 people and the destruction of shops and more than 300 homes.

To tackle such lawlessness and outbreaks of rioting, the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps was formed in 1854. The Eurasians, already a settled community in Singapore, were the first non-Europeans to join the corps, helping to take care of internal security and defence.

The earliest record of Eurasian volunteers in the corps dates back to 1862, and by the 1870s, the corps was made up predominantly of Eurasians and Europeans.

A research-heavy 412-page book launched on Tuesday (Nov 27) chronicles the contributions of Straits Settlements Eurasian men, who took responsibility for the defence of the British Empire, both at home and abroad, over nearly a century. Some of them also served in both the World Wars.

The corps was the precursor of the post-independence People's Defence Force, which was involved in the training of part-time national servicemen when national service was introduced in 1967.

Speaking at the launch of On Parade: Straits Settlements Eurasian Men Who Volunteered To Defend The Empire 1862-1957, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean said the book celebrates an important core value of Singapore's Eurasian community - the spirit of service.

He noted, among other things, that Eurasians played an integral role in the People's Defence Force, noting "a good number of our volunteers, including our Eurasian volunteers, were mobilised and formed the core of our fledgling armed forces".

The book, which is published by the Singapore Management University's Wee Kim Wee Centre, also details some of the struggles of the community, which included rejection by the British army. For instance, during World War I, some Eurasian residents sailed to Britain, at great personal sacrifice, in order to fight in the war, but a number were turned away - for reasons such as their "brown complexion". Meanwhile, regiments from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were welcomed warmly.

A roster of more than 1,000 Eurasian volunteers who fought for the Empire is included in the book, which took about two years to complete. It was researched and written by former librarian turned author Mary Anne Jansen, retired mechanical engineer John Geno-Oehlers and homemaker Ann Ebert Oehlers, and supported by the National Heritage Board's Heritage Participation Grant.

Mr Geno-Oehlers, 69, said: "We feel there should be a written record somewhere to at least thank them for their service. It also helps the families reconcile with their loss."

Mr Geno-Oehlers noted that the Eurasians had chosen to volunteer because they believed the future was at stake. He said: "The decision to volunteer speaks of duty, loyalty and a long-term commitment to home. The only home the Eurasians had was the Straits Settlements and England was not home."

DPM Teo noted Singapore Eurasians could trace their family trees to distant lands like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany, and their families have inter-married, integrated and settled here for generations.

He said: "I believe the book will also help to raise greater understanding of our Eurasian community and their important contributions to nation-building, and serve to strengthen the bond of all Singaporeans to our multiracial and multi-ethnic society."