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Japanese occupation and economic boom in Singapore

Around the last decades of Nineteenth century, aside from being considered a key hub for all import and export maritime trade routes of the entire Malay Peninsula, Singapore had also gradually become one of the the most dynamic immigration port in the whole Southeast Asia.

In fact, it was just in Singapore island that the vaste majority of Chinese, Indian and Indonesian immigrants – who had arrived in droves – used to wait for their respective destinations before being sorted out and sent to the tin mines or the natural rubber plantations, which stood in the north of Malay Peninsula in those territories wrested from the rainforest.

If in 1878 in Singapore there was a Chinese community consisting of around 34.000 individuals, ten years later, in 1888, the number of Chinese immigrants reached the peack of 103.000 people1.

Singapore and Chinese communities before Japanese occupation

During this particular period Chinese community appeared as a heterogeneous social structure composed by various ethnic dialectal groups.

At that time within the Singaporean Chinese community there were: the hokkien engagged in commerce and banking activities, the teochew, who were mainly paesants employed in the above mentioned natural rubber plantations and the cantonese, who used to deal with craft activities. Among the latter there were also unskilled laborers and small traders. In the minority there were instead the hakka e the hainanese. They often were part of the Singapore’s social and economic fabric as sailors, servants and unskilled workers2.

In order to deal with the rampant forced prostitution of Chinese Women and the abuses put into effect by secret societies suffered by most immigrants, in 1877 the British settlers established the Chinese Protectorate; it was a sort of civil colonial court directed by officer William Pickering. The British officer, by taking advantage of his perfect knowledge of hokkien, cantonese, hakka and teochew dialects, managed to overcome the culturall barriers erected by Chinese secret societies, while remaining in a perfect compliance with all Chinese customs and cultural traditions. That led the Chinese immigrants established in Singapore to give him the nickname Thai Jin (great man).

He himself pointed out that:

“One indispensable requisite for good government is a knowledge of the people to be governed; it is not too much to say that for the last fifty years we have been content to go on in almost total ignorance of the language, habits, and feeling of a great, and at any rate the most important, part of the population of our colonies in the Far East.” (3).

Indians communities in Singapore before the arrival of Japanese rulers

In order to complete the multiethnic picture offered by Singapore Island at that time, we  cannot overlook some aspects of the miscellaneous Indian Community, which was also composed by different ethnic and religious groups: the tamil coming from the Southern tip of the Indian subcontinent and the Island of Ceylon(now Sri Lanca), the bengalis coming from the northern regions of India, the nanaks also known as mamax o tulikans native of the Coromandel coast (Southeast of Indian peninsula), the chuliahs muslim Indians coming from the Southern regions devoted to commercial activities as well as the mopahs o kakas who descended from Malabar coast (Southwest of Indian Peninsula)4.

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Singapore and the anti-colonial revolt

Although thanks to the Anglo-Jappanese treaty of 19025 the winds of World War I blew rather weakly over Singapore colony, on February the 15th, 1915 the bloodiest anti-colonial revolt that the “Lion City” had ever met in the course of its existence exploded. Around three months after the entry of Ottoman Turkey  in World War I 815 Indian muslim troops of together with 100 Malaysian soldiers mutinied trying to free 300 German prisoners and Killing about 33 British soldiers and 18 civilians of European nationality6. During the transition years between World War I and World War II the British Government, having had the opportunity to evaluate the expansionist foreign policy of the former Japanese allies and being aware of the strategic importance of Singapore about the defence of the interests of British Empire in Southeast Asia territories, in June 1921 decided to start the construction of one of the most impressive naval bases of which the Royal Navy had ever had just in the region of Sembawang in the North of Singapore Island7.

Constructed in 1938 at the price of 60 million pounds8, the British naval base of Sembawang, in case of conflict with the Japanese armed forces, should have protected both the colony of Singapore and the entire economic and commercial system of Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand9.

The Japanese Occupation

At the outbreak of World War II the defense of Singapore Island was entrusted to General Arthur Percival. He managed a miscellaneous contingent of around 88,000 people composed by British, Indian and Australian soldiers. On the opposite military front there was the Japanese General Tumoyuki Yamashita, better known with the nickname ” The tiger of Malaya”, in command of whom there were 60.000 soldiers10.

On December the 10th, 1941, the unespected sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse, caused by the Japanese Air Force bombers, allowed Japanese officers to intensify landings on Malay Peninsula, which was without any protection, and plan the conquest of Singapore with a targeted attack from the mainland11. General Percival, in a desperate attempt to stop the advancement of Japanese troops, in January 1942 ordered the never accomplished destruction of the embankment which linked Singapore island to Malay Peninsula. By the way about 5,000 Japanese troops managed to land on the island and the colony was invaded by more than 25,000 troops and  many tanks supported by the best fighter aircrafts of Japanese aviation12.

On February the 15th, 1942 the British General Arthur Percival was forced to unconditionally surrender to the Japanese General Tumoyuki Yamashita, who gave the former British colony a new name: Syonan, whose meaning in Japanese language was “Light of the South”13.

Percival - Tomoyuki Yamashita - Ford Motor Factory - Japanese Occupation

Fig. 8

On the left General Tomoyuki Yamashita, in front of him the defeated British General Arthur Percival immortalized while signing the surrender of Singapore in the offices of Ford Motor Factory in a historical picture14.

In three and a half yearsof Japanese occupation, which ended with the unconditional surrender of Japan on August the 15th, 1945, Singapore experienced the darkest and most troubled periods of its whole history. The military command of the former British colony was entrusted to Colonel Watanabe while the municipal government passed under the direction of Mayor Shigeo Odate and del General Consul Kaoru Toyota15. In those years about 50.000 Chinese civilians were brutally killed by Kempeitai (military police of Japanese Imperial Army) in the course of shuku sei operations (meaning purification in Japanese language) because suspected of having supported the anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance actions16. Moreover, the total non-compliance with Gineva Convention (1929) by Japanese officers allowed the torture of more than 50.000 British and Commonwealth prisoners, who were forced to suffer gruesome detention regimes in Changi prison. More than 61.000 people including British, Australian and Dutch war prisoners, along with thousands of Malaysian, Chinese and Thailandese civilians were sent to forced labours in the construction of the sadly known  Death Railway, which at that time should link Thailand to Burma17.

The rising climate of terror during Japanese occupation had significant repercutions in public education policies and the dissemination of culture in general.

Press and Radio were the main tools of Japanese imperialist propaganda, which, under the guise of a political economic project concerning the involvement of Singaporean civil society in the accomplishment of the so called East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, hid indeed the purpose of increase the exploitation of natural resources available in all occupied territories, forcing the local population to starvation.

At the opening of schools, in April 1942, the teaching of English as Language of education was abolished, while Nippon-go (Japanese language) was gradually becoming the sole educational Language permitted by the new rulers. In a first phase, because of a huge shortage of Teachers, the dissemination of Japanese Language was entrusted to Syonan Times newspaper (formerly Straits Times during British domination), which published daily lessons.

Subsequently, a lot of Japanese Language schools sprang up in the former buildings belonging to Overseas Chinese Associations.

Aware of the initial shortage of both Japanese mother tongue Teachers and textbooks, the executive director of Singapore educational department Mamoru Shinozachi was forced to temporarily allow a combined use of both Japanese and English Language, condition which lasted until the arrival in Singapore of the first Japanese grammar textbook in July 194218.

Japanese grammar textbook in Singapore, Syonan Times, Japanese Language Lesson in Singapore

The picture n. 9 shows a Japanese grammar textbook used Singapore during Japanese occupation years19. The picture n. 10 shows the first page of Syonan Times (Shimbun)20. The picture n. 11 shows a Japanese Language lesson in a Singaporean cinema21.

Further readings and most recommended books

1Tremewan Christopher, The political economy of social control in Singapore, St Antony’s Series, Macmillan Press Ltd., Basingstoke, London, 1994, Great Britain.

2PuruShotam Srirekam Nirmala, Negotiating multiculturalism: disciplining difference in Singapore, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin · New York, 2000, Germany, United States of America.

3Pickering William cit. in De Bernardi Elizabeth Jean, Rites of belonging: memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community, Stanford University Press, Board of Trustees of the Lenan Stanford Junior University, Stanford, California, 2004, United States of America, p. 71, trad.: «Un indispensabile requisito per il buon governo è la conoscenza del popolo da governare; non è troppo dire che negli ultimi cinque anni ci siamo accontentati di continuare nella quasi totale ignoranza della lingua, delle abitudini e dei sentimenti di una grande ed ad ogni modo la più importante parte della popolazione delle nostre colonie in Estremo Oriente.».

4Siddique cit. in Trocki A. Carl, Singapore: wealth, power, and the culture of control, Routledge, Abingdon, 2006, op. cit.

5Hack Karl, Defence and Decolonization in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1968, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, 2001, Great Britain.

6Graf Arndt, Schröter Susanne, Wieringa Edwin, Aceh: history, politics and culture, ISEAS Publishing, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2010, Republic of Singapore.

7Ooi Keat Gin, Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2004, op. cit.

8Gretchen Liu, Singapore: a pictorial history 1819-2000, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom.

9Smith L. Anthony, Southeast Asia and New Zeland: a history of regional and bilateral relations, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in association with Victoria University Press, Singapore · Wellinghton, 2005, Republic of Singapore, New Zeland.

10Horner David, The Second World War (1): The Pacific, Osprey Essential Histories, Osprey Publishing, editor: Rebecca Cullen, Oxford, 2002, United Kingdom.

11Jaques Tony, Dictionary of battles and sieges: a guide to 8500 battles from antiquity through the twenty-first century (vol. 3), Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 2007, United States of America.

12Axelrod Alan, The Real History of World War II: A New Look at the Past, Sterling Publishing, New York, 2008, United States of America.

13Visscher Sikko, The business of politics and ethnicity: a history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, NUS Press, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 2007, Republic of Singapore.

15Quah S.T. John, Public Administration Singapore-Style, Research in Public Policy Analysis and Menagment, Volume 19, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, 2010, United Kingdom.

16Huen Pui Lim, Wong Diana, War and Memory in Malaysia and Singapore, Instutute of Southeast Asia Studies, Singapore, 2000, first reprint 2001, Republic of Singapore.

17Adams Simon, Occupation and Resistance, documenting World War II, The Rosen Publishing Group Inc., New York, 2009, United States of America.

18Ramcharan Robin, Forging a Singapore Statehood 1965-1995 The Contribution of Japan, International Law in Japanese Perspective, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, 2002, The Netherlands, op. cit.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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