Life Under Occupation

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In late 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army launched its attack on British Southeast Asia.  The British has long been cognizant of the threat, and had developed what was known as the “Singapore Strategy” in which the city was to become a key defensive position, an impregnable island of resistance in case of a Japanese attack. When the Japanese invasion came, from the northern part of Malaysia as expected, British forces were inadequate and subsequently were forced to continually fall back. Key cities fell in quick succession: Penang on December 17, Taiping on December 22, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, and Japanese troops here in Johor by January 15 which fell on the 27th of that month (Abshire 2011, 92, 94). Japanese bombing raids inflicted causalities as the British attempted to hold out. On February 8, 1942, Japanese troops began crossing the Straits, and on February 15, the British waved the white flag and surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. Occupation officially began the following day.

Life under the Japanese occupation in Singapore could vary depending on where you were and who you were.  Joseph Seah, a Christian Chinese Singaporean, reported that because his family lived in an area that had no Japanese trading companies, and therefore there was little interference in their daily lives by the Japanese.  Rumors reached them about what has happening outside, but their lives were mainly quiet although there were occasional visits by Japanese soldiers.  The war was felt mainly in their stomachs and their pocketbooks.  “Patented medicines” became almost impossible to find, and therefore many people turned to Chinese herbalists.  Seah even reported that they began a small apothecary garden in their own backyard to grow herbs used to treat common afflictions.  Seah recalled that throughout the war, some doctors had medicines available, but they were very expensive.  Other medicines could be had on the black market, and his own family purchased quinine because of the fear of malaria given that the “care of the environment” such as  clearing drains was no longer occurring as it had under the British.  Seah recalled riding his bicycles around; most of the bikes’ tires were not pneumatic, so the ride must have been a bit rough.  The Japanese has seized most of the cars, and besides some private taxis, most cars on the road were Japanese, with a few buses running although the ticket price was quite expensive. Moving outside carried certain dangers, and Seah saw his mother beaten for not bowing “low enough” to a Japanese sentry, and also saw a friend beaten for failing to get off his bicycle as he went through a checkpoint.  Money was very difficult, and Seah often worked as a “procurer,” getting lists of people’s requested goods, often simply household commodities, and going to seek it from others willing to sell or trade those items.  The lack of money was the most pronounced aspect of Seah’s experiences under the Japanese occupation.  Other parts of life were unaffected.  The family continued to attend church at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and there was no interference with services.

Tan Ban Cheng recalls a very difficult experience in which the Japanese were much more a part of daily life.  He spoke about the roundups of young men for forced labor.  All individuals were issued badges or armbands (Seah just recalled having a paper pass issued, which must be produced if asked).  Those involved in “essential services” would not be round-ups.  However, those who were not were vulnerable to such roundups, which Tan recalls increasing occurred towards the end of occupation.  Many of these young men “did not come back,” and Tan relates that it was later learned that many of them had been sent to Malaya or Thailand where they were involved in rail construction.  Tan himself was a student, and he joined a Japanese language school, known as Queen Street Japanese School, in the evenings run by what were called “gunzoku” which Tan described as “auxiliary to the military.”  The classes were of mixed ages and genders, and were for the most part conducted in Japanese with a bit of broken English.  The staff was entirely Japanese except for a few groundskeepers.  Each class culminated in a written exam, for which students would receive a certificate upon successful completion.  Armed with his certificates, Tan went on to join the Teachers’ Training College at Saint Joseph Institution where a Japanese curriculum had been instituted to replace that of the previous regime.

The contrast between the two men’s experiences are apparent.  The impacts of the Japanese occupation were, for Seah, more indirect.  Shortages and poverty, the indirect results of the occupation through inflation and the disruption of the movement of goods, was the primary impact.  For Tan, it was the introduction of a new educational system and from close contact with Japanese educators and other professionals.  It underlines that there was not “one” experience of occupation, but different individuals had vastly different experiences.

Abshire, Jean E. 2011. The History of Singapore. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

“SEAH, Joseph Japanese Occupation of Singapore 日治时期的新加坡, Accession Number 001558.” Accessed December 1, 2015.

“TAN Ban Cheng ( Dr ) 陈万清 Japanese Occupation of Singapore 日治时期的新加坡, Accession Number 000392.” Accessed November 30, 2015.

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