1945: We survive the war

Having lost my mother at such an early age I had to fend for myself in every way possible. I went to work carrying coals on my head. I cleaned locomotives in dangerous ways, such as creeping under these mighty steam engines to rake out ashes and debris. I became a fireman on locomotives, running along the railway tracks in the middle of the night. These were hard knocks I received very early in life. In hindsight, it was worth the experience for what I learned.

I became a trader in addition to working on the trains. Salt was scarce during the war. So was everything else. Salt was being produced in Port Dickson by boiling seawater. It was produced secretly. I bought a sackful each time I worked on a locomotive that went that way. Then I carried this all the way to Kuala Lumpur when I worked on other trains. There were buyers waiting at the railway stations. In exchange for salt I bought coconut oil. This was much in demand at the time for oil lamps, cooking, hairdressing and various other uses. I helped the chargeman’s wife in buying and selling the salt for her as her husband had passed away.

On one of these occasions when I went looking for the salt producers, who worked in hiding, I stumbled and fell several metres down a slippery slope. Some bushes prevented me from falling further. It was dark. I felt something was holding me back from slipping further. I looked up and was shocked to find a man was hanging with his feet on my chest. I trembled with fear and was unable to push the feet away. I turned this way and that but the feet of this hanging man were lodged firmly against my body. When I finally managed to get up, I ran away as fast as I could. I alerted my friends, who were also out looking for the salt producers!

In addition to trading salt and coconut oil, I dealt in many other things. I learned to buy and sell carpentry and mechanic tools as these were in much demand then. Old bicycles had a market too. I remember my father taking a bicycle from me and losing it at the market. Theft of bicycles was very common. Not just bicycles – for anything that had wheels, there was a thieves’ market for it.

Despite all the poverty we endured during the Japanese Occupation, we managed to keep in fairly good health. It could be because we were a young family and were very much used to doing hard work. I cut huge trees for firewood. I chopped them to fit into ovens. I pounded rice with a wooden pestle and I ground chillies for cooking. There was only one bathroom for the 14 of us and a single bucket toilet that I would never want to see again. We washed the floors of the house and painted the walls when necessary. My father would insist that we washed the drains of the house every day. We had a vegetable garden beside the house. That too needed watering and weeding every day. There was also a coconut tree and a mango tree that needed protection from unwelcome visitors. It was a hard life but we never complained.

I never thought the British would ever come back again. Then one day, when I was sitting on the railings of a bridge, I noticed a military truck come down the road. Then I saw another, and yet another. This time I looked very carefully at them. They were not Japanese soldiers but Indian army personnel. More people stopped by the bridge to look at them. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Yes, they were truly British army. They had landed in Port Dickson and were making their way into Seremban, my hometown. I ran home to tell the others what I saw. By then the whole town had got wind of the news.

Japan had surrendered. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 had put an end to the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. With that, the war came to an end.

The Japanese surrender did not mean that I could stop working, however. We were told to carry on whatever we were doing. But now our masters were British army officers. Our salaries were paid in Malayan dollars and cents. These became our treasure, as the King of England’s picture was now on our currency. The ‘banana money’ issued by the Japanese became valueless. Nobody wanted it any longer.

Japanese banana money
Japanese ‘banana money’ issued during the Occupation. 


Living dangerously

As the food supply became less and less, people began to suffer the ill effects. Just to keep body and soul together was an almost impossible task. Rations were meagre and there was hardly anything else to eat. Had Japan not surrendered after three and a half years of the occupation, many more would have died.

Apart from those who collaborated with the Japanese, there were nasty people who took advantage of the situation in the country. They bullied the innocent, spied on their neighbours and demanded protection money from people. They were ‘little Napoleons’ in their neighbourhoods. When the tide turned against them after Japan lost the war, they disappeared for fear of retribution from those who suffered at their hands.

Working at such an early stage of life brought me into contact with adults. Many of them were up to no good. I was exposed to indecent behaviour and heard foul language all the time. I was taught to steal and prevented from telling the truth so as to protect my superiors who were engaged in illegal activities. I had no one to advise me or defend me when I was asked to do wrong things.

Rice godown
Screen grab of rice godown from Mahatru broadcasting company footage, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzG6zrU0YqM

I crept through monsoon drains to enter into rice godowns while Japanese soldiers were keeping watch at the doors. Once I stole a Japanese soldier’s dinner from the train. He chased me with his gun fully cocked. He didn’t know the terrain. I escaped. Foolishly I repeated similar stunts many times while working on the trains, encouraged by the driver, the first fireman and the guard. Thieving became a way of life. You were thought to be stupid if you did not act when opportunities presented themselves.

As I look back, I can’t believe that I did all those things without any fear whatsoever. Had I been caught that would have been the end of me. Many people died for lesser misdemeanours. We heard stories of people being killed when they did not bow to the Japanese when they met them on the roads. When you passed a Japanese soldier on guard duty, you had to stop, stand at attention, bow down as low as possible and call out, “Master.” Only then he would let you pass. He would also check your armband, which had information about yourself and your job. They didn’t trust anybody.

The Chinese population suffered the most. They were killed at random. I have seen people beheaded in broad daylight, and others tied to a lamp post for days without food or water. A storekeeper I used to know died this way because he could not account for some missing items in the store that he managed. Cruelty was the order of the day during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. Perhaps most military regimes behave in this way. They fear losing their lives. They kill before they get killed.

To have survived under these conditions speaks volumes for members of my family. We were 12 brothers and sisters in all. The eldest was 22 and the youngest barely eight years old. I was fourteen, working on the railways, and my younger brothers too had to find jobs. One went to work in a soap factory while another helped a chicken farmer feed and ind his chickens so that they would not be stolen. Father got himself a small contract to supply firewood. He had to go deep into the jungles to cut wood that would then be transported to the main supplier. On one occasion, when I went to the jungle to look for him I was confronted by a big wild boar.

Stock photo by weggelaar, Pixabay.

It was late evening. The boar looked aggressive and made some rough noises. I had nothing except the bicycle that I was on. I got down and protected myself with the bicycle in case it charged. After a minute or so it decided to run into the bushes instead. It was a tusker and would have been a formidable enemy to fight with only a bicycle frame.

Living dangerously was part of our existence during the Japanese occupation. Somehow, we didn’t realise the risks we were taking to stay alive. I can still recall many such instances. For me it has been a miracle that I have lived to tell this story.

There were many more incidents that are now hidden in the dark recesses of my mind. Occasionally I remember something. But at my present age I just let it pass without making a note of it. Later when I try to remember, it is simply not there. Before I close this part of my story I will tell you this one.

One day I entered a shop where a Japanese soldier was having a drink. He beckoned me with two fingers and pointed to his boots. They were dirty and covered in mud. He asked me to remove them from his feet. I didn’t understand him. He took them off himself and signed to me to have them washed. I took the boots but I was not prepared to wash them for him. He growled and prodded me. Then he sat down to continue with his drink. I threw the boots at him and ran for my life. People later told me that he was looking for me in the neighbourhood. Nobody told him where I lived. My job kept me away from my house for a few days. That surely saved me from being beaten and maybe even killed.


1942: I lose my mother

It was 1942. I turned fourteen in January. Instead of being at school, I had become a locomotive engine cleaner. The Japanese army made it a point that, “If you don’t work, there is no need for you to eat.” I have said this already in my writings. The story I am about to relate is the saddest part of my life. It haunts me even today.

I lost my mother. She died under tragic circumstances. She was a sick woman, mentally speaking, and had been hospitalised up north at Tanjung Rambutan. When the Japanese army overran the place there was no one to protect her. My father was unable to get her home. We only got to know of her death a couple of weeks later. It is a tragedy from which I have not recovered. From time to time it still troubles me. I grew up without a mother.

I became withdrawn and felt inferior to others who had mothers. We were poor and that made things even worse. There were six children older to me who were the children of my father’s first wife, who had also passed away earlier. I am the eldest child of my father’s second wife. I had responsibilities for my younger sister and four younger brothers, who all needed to be looked after without a mother. We helped each other.

A lesson that everyone must learn is never to take mothers for granted. Nobody can take her place when she is gone. When I look at my grandchildren today I wonder whether they realise how fortunate they are to have a mother who does so many things for them. If they fail to appreciate it now they will live to regret it years later.

My mother would have suffered greatly during the war. She was a lovely woman who had gone to school in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Before the war, she took us to India with the intention that we would study in Indian schools. My brother Nelson, who was the fourth brother, was born in India in 1933. Things would have been different for me had she succeeded in keeping us in India. But father wanted us back in Malaya. Perhaps now you can understand why I lost so much of my schooling when I was young. Had we remained in India, the war would not have disrupted our education. My fortunes would have been different.

Family photo 1933
This was taken in 1933, before my mother took us three boys to India where my brother Nelson was later born. L. to R.: Wilson, aged 4; my father; Johnson, aged 2; my mother; and myself, aged 5. The photo was taken in front of our house at No. 9, Rahang Road, Seremban. Our home was a ramshackle, half-wooden, half-concrete house directly across the street from the Indian Association where men of our community would gather. When we were older, we boys would happily collect their empty beer bottles to sell for a little money.

The story of my mother is a sad one. I pray that children will always have their mothers until they are fully grown up and can look after themselves. As I write, wars are still going on in other parts of the world. I think of the children and their parents. Present ammunitions are worse than those used in the Second World War. With these weapons of mass destruction the world could be totally destroyed. Pray that such a thing doesn’t happen. Nobody can win such a war.

Mother and child b:w shot - Zeynap Kanra
Portrait by Zeynap Kanra, http://wearethecity.in

Some kind Japanese soldiers

While working on the railway I befriended an Anglo-Indian family whose father had been taken away by the Japanese army. Their father had been a first-class locomotive driver. He was in charge of the fast passenger trains that only stopped at the main railway stations. The Japanese army believed that this man was English. That was the plight of many Eurasian families in Malaya. Their menfolk were all rounded up and sent to a concentration camp in Singapore. This was the infamous Sime Road camp where many of them died of starvation and disease or were beaten to death. Their treatment was cruel and barbaric because they were suspected of being pro-British.

The eldest son of this family was my age. He came to work with me in the railway shed to qualify for the rice rations. We became close friends. There were seven children in this family and his mother was expecting the eighth child when the father was taken away. The mother was afraid of the Japanese soldiers all the time. There were many stories of women being abused by soldiers when their menfolk were not around. The Eurasian families were the most frightened as their menfolk had all been carted off to prison camps. Other kinds of criminal activities by Japanese soldiers were common practice too. Among them were some good men, however.

When this lady had her baby she gave this girl an Indian Tamil name. She named her Letchumi. But she looked very much an English child. The mother hid her in a large clay water barrel most of the time except when feeding. I felt very sorry for them.

Wooden steps
We rolled down the front steps together.

I visited the family often and gave them whatever I stole from the goods trains. Once when I arrived at nightfall with a small bundle of rice for the family, a Japanese soldier had already come into the house to offer some foodstuff to the family. When I climbed the stairs to go into the house, he was startled and decided to throttle me. We struggled. I tried to push him away. We rolled down the wooden stairs together. Then we looked at each other. I was surprised. He was not angry with me. Instead he made signs asking me to follow him into the railway yard.

I was hesitant. The family told me not to go with him. But he looked sincere. I decided to follow him, keeping a safe distance in case I had to run away. We came to the railway stores. He had a large bunch of keys and tried opening the store with one key after another. When he succeeded he went in and brought out a large sack of rice. He signalled to me to carry it to the family. Rice was very precious in those days and to get a sackful was unbelievable. I was strong and I carried it on my back. The family was not sure whether they should accept it or not. In the end they took it with much fear and trepidation.

After this incident, this soldier came to the house often and gave them other things as well. Milk powder, sugar, coconut oil, salt and of course rice, so long as he was there in charge of the stores. It was a tremendous help to this family.

There was another Japanese soldier I got to know who was also very kind and helpful. Clothes were hard to come by in those days. We had to make do with very little on our backs. When we washed our clothes we would sit outside and watch as they dried in the sun so that they would not be stolen. The clothes we wore became torn and tattered. This soldier used to give me needles and thread to pass around to those who needed to stitch and patch their old clothes. He also used to give me old clothes for the family. I don’t know where he got them from, but he told me not to tell anyone that I had got these items from him. We became friends. Just before the war ended he looked very sad. I guess he knew that Japan was going to be defeated. He gave me his name and address and said I could visit him in Japan.

These were two Japanese soldiers I knew who were kind and sympathetic to people who were suffering then because of the war.

Working on the trains

After a year of working as the engine cleaner I was made a ‘second fireman’ on the locomotives. My job was to help the first fireman keep the engine in running order, including its steam, lubrication, and firebox functions. There were coal and sand boxes that had to be stocked at all times to prevent the engine from slipping on steep gradients. It was very hard work as the trains ran at all times of the day and night. I survived by doing this till the end of the war.

Steam locomotive tm.trains.com
Part of my job was to keep the firebox stoked with coal. Pic from http://www.trn.trains.com

The goods trains were often the target of thieves. They were not thieves from ‘outside’ but railway workers. The drivers, firemen, and guards were all in league. They would stop the train in a dark forested area in the night, and would help themselves to whatever was available in the wagons. This was common practice, to the point that the Japanese army put guards in the wagons to prevent theft. Still the thieving went on. This time with the aid of the Japanese soldier.

While working on these engines I had to get down and throw sand on the railway tracks when the locomotive would struggle to haul the wagons on steep gradients. I had to run in front of the locomotives throwing sand on the tracks until the wheels stopped slipping. Many things could have happened doing this. If I slipped and fell the engine would have run over me. At night there are wild animals that you don’t see. You could be attacked by them. Many times I saw wild boar crossing the railway lines to escape into the forests when they heard the locomotives coming their way.

Close-up of a cow catcher, perhaps more aptly termed a cow thrower. Pic from http://riogrande.blog.so-net.ne.jp/archive/20120824

The sound of the locomotives often scared away domestic animals too. Cows, goats, dogs, cats and poultry would run amok when the heard the mighty locomotives chugging away. Many would be knocked down and killed. The locomotives had a piece of equipment attached to the front of the engines. It was called a cow catcher. That’s exactly what it did. Cows, water buffalo, wild boar and sometimes elephants too would get in the way of the trains. The cow catchers threw them out of the way.

In addition to these creatures getting in the way, there was the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) operating in the jungles of Malaya. They would attack the trains in the dead of night, looking for Japanese soldiers and for any food available. They wore uniforms and their headgear had three stars stitched to the front. They were mainly Chinese controlled by Chin Peng, who was a known Communist. His private army was called ‘Tiga Bintang’ because of the stars. They were fierce and killed anyone suspected of collaborating with the Japanese army. My brother and I once had a narrow escape from being shot by them in a tailor shop. They mistook us for an enemy who was apparently hiding in the ceiling of the shop we were in. That was a narrow escape from being killed during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya.

During this regime all workers had to wear arm bands to identify themselves. It was white and had a big round dot, like the Japanese flag. This ‘hinomaru’ (circle of the sun) depicted the rising sun. The Japanese claimed they were children of the Rising Sun. The arm band with the red dot was necessary to show that the wearers were supporters of the Japanese army. Many were proud to display it. Beyond pride, some Malayans totally collaborated with the Japanese army administration. They spied on fellow Malayans and reported them to the authorities. Those who were spied on would be severely punished without proper investigations being conducted. There was fear as sometimes this was a way that Malayans would take this route to settle old scores, quarrels and family disagreements. The arm bands also had the name of the wearer and their job. The collaborators proudly displayed these arm bands to threaten people and take advantage of them.

If anyone was caught without an arm band he would be taken into custody and interrogated as to why he was not wearing one. He was sure to receive a beating if his explanation was not acceptable, and he could be detained for further punishment. If an arm band was lost the person was required to tell the authorities. The arm bands were really like the identity cards that Malaysians carry these days. Anyone above the age of 12 had to have an arm band when going out to work or even just going out for a walk.

Other restrictions also had to be obeyed. Going out at night was unsafe. Moreover, there was nothing to go out for at night. The Japanese authorities would get very suspicious of people who were out after dark. They feared these people were supporting the ‘Tiga Bintang’ army that was hiding in the jungles. As I worked at all times of the day and night my arm band helped with identifying the nature of my job and the reason I was out. It wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nevertheless, I had some explaining to do each time I was stopped by a Japanese soldier.




Japan invades Malaya


Invasion map Malaya - editedDecember 8th, 1941, is a date nobody in my age group will ever forget. Japan had entered the war and Singapore was attacked on that date. Japanese bombers flew sortie after sortie, dropping their bombs in various parts of Singapore. We in Seremban had our share of air raid warnings and bombs. Several times a day we ran into air raid shelters and stayed in them for long periods. All our preparations and practices for real war had finally come to my town.

Overnight, everything changed. Japanese forces began their assault of Malaya from the north. The HMS Repulse and the Prince of Wales, formidable battleships of the British Navy, were sunk by Japanese dive bombers. By late January 1942 Japanese forces had invaded Malaya and the British General Percival surrendered in Singapore to the Japanese General Yamashita, known as the Tiger of Malaya. Promptly the Japanese renamed the island of Singapore Shonanto, sometimes written as Syonan-to. However, this is not a treatise on the Japanese occupation of Malaya but the story of my school life. So I shall leave the historical aspects of the war and the occupation of Malaya to historians.

In Seremban, everybody was evacuating to the rural areas in order not to be caught up in air raids. My father decided to move us out as well. We relocated to the home of a family who had a large homestead in the outskirts of Seremban town where we stayed for Christmas 1941 and the new year of 1942. I wasn’t happy in this place as there were other families sharing this large house with us. Moreover, the place was infested with mosquitoes whose nightly raids were a nightmare to all of us.

I turned 13 in January 1942. I was just beginning my teenage years. I was looking forward to going back to school, having lost so much of my early years without going to school. But there was no school. The Japanese army had occupied the school building. It was war time. Soldiers in combat don’t believe in keeping schools open for children. After things settled down with the Japanese army fully in charge some schools did reopen, but they were not allowed to teach anything in English; lessons had to be in the Japanese language, Nippon-Go.

The Japanese Military Administration wanted every able-bodied man and woman to work. Anybody over the age of 12 had to go to work in order to qualify for food rations. As rice, sugar and salt were in short supply only those who worked would qualify for these rations. The rations we were given for month would only last for about a week. For the rest of the days in the month one had to fend for oneself with local produce such as tapioca, sweet potatoes, maize, ragi (finger millet) and whatever else that could be eaten to keep hunger at bay. Fish and chicken were delicacies when available. Otherwise it was just rice porridge and salt fish.

Other things in short supply were clothes and shoes – not branded items but plain rubber-soled shoes and cotton trousers. Apart from these shortages there were no electricity nor kerosene for oil lamps. We stayed in darkness when the sun set. The streets were dark, houses were dark and even the hospitals worked in darkness. Water was rationed, soap was a luxury and any kind of hair cream was unavailable. We used coconut oil to comb our hair.

Any kind of public transport was out of the question. We had to walk wherever we wanted to go. When my school was requisitioned by the British army previously, we were relocated to a Tamil school miles away from my house. That was when the British were still around. But with the Japanese army in charge, we were not only tired with walking everywhere but also hungry most of the time. We ate anything that was edible – wild fruit, unfamiliar leafy vegetables and birds that we caught.

The Japanese Occupation of Malaya lasted three and a half years. It was a time of great distress for all Malayans. Many civilians died. The Chinese community suffered the most: their homes ransacked, their men murdered for resisting and their women carried away and never heard of again. The Japanese soldiers took away anything they wanted. Bicycles, cars, lorries and buses were their main targets. The slightest resistance to their demands ended in sure death for anyone who dared to protect his property. There was no one to protect the civilians from these murderous armed forces. The British had fled. The Malayan armed forces had disappeared into their native villages.

I had to find a job in order to get food rations. The railway locomotive shed was not far from my home. These were steam trains that ran on coal for fuel. The chargeman, the leading workman responsible for maintaining the locomotives, knew my father. He offered to take me in as an engine cleaner. In addition I would work as a coal-coolie to fill the bunkers of the locomotives with coal. An engine cleaner’s job is the dirtiest job anyone can find. It is also very dangerous as one has to get under the locomotive to rake out the ashes and other unwanted debris. As these were steam locomotives the boilers and ovens would need regular checkups and cleaning to keep them in good working order. It was very hard work. There was no choice but to accept the offer.


We leave school for a while

Australian army Seremban 1941.png
The 2/19th Infantry Battalion was stationed at Seremban from early 1941 to ’42. The recruits were from the farming areas of southern New South Wales, They may have been homesick country boys who befriended our family. Source: Australian War Memorial

In late 1941, I went to school as usual despite all this disruption of our school premises and distraction by the presence of army men and their war machines. I spent my afternoons in the army camps close to my house, making friends with the soldiers and collecting odds and ends that could be sold for a few cents. Old newspapers fetched good prices. Australian magazines were in demand in the local bookshops and these were in abundance in the army camp. I picked up the old issues and sold them to the stores. I also collected lots of Australian coins and badges, which I kept in the house to exchange with friends. Sometimes these soldier friends came to my house in the evenings for a beer and a chat with my father. We had an old organ, which gave these soldiers much pleasure in playing and singing. They were a jolly lot of fellows.

In the midst of all these activities I kept up with my studies. I had no problem with the various subjects, except perhaps arithmetic. Very often I copied the answers for arithmetic problems from my friends and pretended that it was my own work. Addition and subtraction was not much of a problem, but I never understood the concept of multiplication and division. If I had to do conversion of weights and measures, or of pounds, shillings and pence, then I really had a problem. Anyway I struggled on, although at times I felt like giving up school because of this one subject.

In October we were all set for the third term examination, the passing of which would see me into the lower secondary school. There was much anxiety as one could even be asked to leave school if one did not perform well. Naughty boys often pointed their fingers at weaker students and tormented them into believing that they would be told to leave school if they did not pass the exams. The teachers also threatened the students with dismissal if they did not perform well. Those were days when the schools could do what they liked. So everyone was afraid.

We began our exams in our new borrowed premises. They lasted one week and soon were all over. Then we went for a picnic behind the school where there were some buses. We played games every day while waiting for our results and news of promotion for those who passed.

Our teacher told us many stories. He told us about his early life as a poor boy in Port Dickson. It was no different from what I was experiencing then. I listened very intently. I liked him all the more because of his humble beginnings that he was not ashamed of. He became my hero – Mr S. Veerapen.

Exam results were announced in early November. I passed with fairly good results, though with a red mark in Arithmetic, and was promoted to Standard Five to commence studies in 1942. That year we did not have our end-of-year school concert because of inadequate facilities at the Tamil school in Lobak. Instead we had a Games Day that was well accepted and enjoyed because of the cakes, ice cream and drinks served to all participants and non-participants alike.

The school authorities were unable to tell us where our classes would be held in 1942, as there was no space at the present premises for another class. Neither was there any place for us at the Hoo Thian Club where the secondary school was running. We were left in limbo, not knowing where to report in January 1942 when schools were supposed to reopen. As children this meant nothing to us. We were interested in the fact that schools were closing and that we were going to have long holidays for about six weeks. The Christmas season was already very much in the air with churches and stores gearing up for the occasion.

We said our goodbyes to our teachers and friends, collected our report cards and assembled in the school canteen for our final Chapel service. The Principal addressed us but said nothing about where we would meet the following year. We sang hymns and prayed, and the school choir led by my teacher entertained us with some Christmas carols. I walked down the stairs, turned round and looked back at the school, wondering how I would manage it all the following year. I reached home and began the task of collecting second-hand text books for Standard Five – the first year of secondary school. Most second-hand books had passed through many hands and were tattered and torn, in some cases with missing pages. However, those were the only text books I could afford to buy. Little did we know what would happen within three weeks of the end of term.