The Japanese relationship with the ethnic Chinese in occupied Singapore was a problematic one. Because Chinese loyalties were seen to extend beyond Singapore, to the Communists, Guomindang, or even international secret societies, they were people of marked interest and distrust for the Japanese occupiers. (Abshire 2011, 102). This distrust was exemplified in a program termed, “sook ching or “purging for purification”” (ibid.). The response of Mr. Milton Tan Hong Moh, who passed away at the age of 87 in March of 2010, in an interview conducted a decade earlier is telling. When asked if he recalled sook ching, he helpfully suggested it was a “massacre” (“Road Safety Champ Milton Tan, 87, Dies,” 2015; Tan 1999). Japanese attempted to identify potential subversives uses interrogations of the entire fighting-age male population as well as by other features of their personal identities such as profession or associations (Abshire 2011, 103). Those under suspicion were executed in-mass,with estimates ranging as high as 50,000 individuals being killed, leading to Mr. Tan to refer to it as simply a massacre (ibid.). The sook ching was just the most extreme example of many policies aimed at pacifying the Chinese populations of Singapore .
Although he was 19 at the time of sook ching, Mr. Tan was not required to go to the screenings. This lucky break came from the fact that, because his father occupied a key position at the Electrical Department, his father and immediate family were given “an armband.” Such armbands were issued as passes to individuals, such as doctors, by the Japanese military government that allowed them certain freedoms, such as the freedom of movement (Oehlers 2008, 83). Mr. Tan’s family were also harboring the son the Tan Kah Kee, an important Chinese businessman and philanthropist, sometimes called the “Henry Ford of Asia,” in Southeast Asia who was also a ardent supporter of China’s efforts to resist the Japanese (Tan 1999). Because of this support, he and his family were Japanese targets. Mr. Tan relates that the Japanese, after seeing the family were in possession of armbands, left without further inquiry. Tan Kah Kee himself managed to escape to Java, no doubt escaping death or imprisonment (“Tan Kah Kee International Society” 2015). Mr. Milton Tan’s extended family were, however, not spared from the sook ching, and he reported cousins and friends being taken away “and shot” (Tan 1999). And despite being “vital,” Mr. Tan’s felt Japanese abuses. He records being beaten by a Japanese soldier after having been sent to the Japanese camp as part of his duty as a electrician. When he told the man that a starter was required to start a generator, otherwise it would continue to blow a fuse, he was beaten for his troubles (Tan 1999). When he repaired a radio at the camp, however, he impressed the Japanese and was immediately put to work in radio. This not only entailed supporting and repairing the Japanese communication equipment, but Tan was also sent to school to learn Japanese so he could work with the occupiers more effectively (Tan 1999). This accords with the larger program of “Japanization” undertaken in Singapore (Abshire 2011, 104).
Chin Kah Chong’s experiences were quite different. First, as a Baba Nyonya, the family’s ansertral home being thought of as Malacca, Ms. Chin did not speak Chinese but Malay (Chee 1996). Her father was a civil servant, and she was just nine or ten years old at the time of the Japanese occupation, a full ten years younger than Milton Tan (ibid). She recounted watching the Japanese march into Singapore and taking control of major arteries as her extended family concentrated to a single house, as “gathering in numbers gave some kind of comfort” (ibid). After they dispersed, though, a gruesome sight met them—headless bodies along the road, “all Chinese” (ibid). When the sook ching began, they were ordered, along with “thousands of other men, women and children,” all Chinese, to report to Song Lim Sawmill on Sungei Road; after a few days of staying there without leaving, even sleeping there, Ms. Chin reports that most of the women and children were permitted to leave. However, this indicates that it was not only men who endured sook ching (ibid). It was, however, the “young men” who were suspicious that were weeded out, and as Ms. Chin reports, executed “somewhere off East Coast Road” (ibid). Her own family’s males had relocated themselves to Hooper Road, and for whatever reason, they were not required to report for sook ching, and never were called to present themselves for screening. In a few weeks her father, who worked as a court clerk, went back to work, this time for the Japanese administration; it has reconstituted the courts (ibid). Ms. Chin was sent to a new school, her old one being taken over as an administrative office by the Japanese, where she, like Mr. Tan, began learning Japanese, taught by local teachers who themselves were being schooled in Japanese. School life was also transformed by the addition of a daily radio announcement, which the children listened to, and then bowing towards Japan to honor the emperor.
Just outside of her school, the Japanese created a “comfort zone.” She reports that weekly women would come to bath, “perfectly nude” and in clear sight through the school windows, causing the expected uproar (ibid). Ms. Chin reported all these women “spoke Japanese” but she could not distinguish whether they were Japanese or Korean, but concluded in restrospect many of them were Koreans. These were meant for the “Japanese officers” and besides fueling a rooftop peep shows for the “boys who showed leadership” in the school, it also created an unexpected trade—school boys would gather used condoms, wash and powder them, re-roll them and sell them back to the Japanese, much to the chagrine of the schoolmaster (ibid).
Although Mr. Tan’s story and Ms. Chin’s stories are quite different, they reflect that few if any lives were untouched by sook ching and occupation. Mr. Tan’s experience of being spared because of his father’s position and concealing the offspring of one of Singapore’s most prominent anti-Japanese Chinese and recruitment is one considered touched by luck. Ms. Chin’s family was largely spared, despite some discomfort from being interned for a few days at a sawmill, but her male family members someone, almost inexplicably, escaped having to endure sook ching. But both saw changes, such as the adoption of Japanese language, and both attested to the loss of life during sook ching.
Abshire, Jean E. 2011. The History of Singapore. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.
Chee, Keng Soon. 1996. Oral History Interviews: CHEE Keng Soon. Accession Number 001776, Reel 1. National Archives of Singapore Oral History. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/oral_history_interviews/record-details/9cb96316-115e-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad?keywords=sook%20ching&keywords-type=all.
Oehlers, J. 2008. That’s How It Goes: Autobiography of a Singapore Eurasian. Select Pub.
“Road Safety Champ Milton Tan, 87, Dies.” 2015. Accessed October 16. http://news.asiaone.com/News/the+Straits+Times/Story/A1Story20100311-203879.html.
“Tan Kah Kee International Society.” 2015. Accessed October 16. http://www.tkkfoundation.org.sg/biography/e_timeline.shtml.
Tan, Milton Hong Moh. 1999. Oral History Interviews: TAN, Milton Hong MohMp3. Accession Number 002121, Reel/Disc 2. National Archives of Singapore Oral History. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/oral_history_interviews/record-details/a48d3c52-115e-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad?keywords=sook%20ching&keywords-type=all.