Dark days of Japanese occupation

K. JANARTHANAN

When soldiers from the Imperial Japanese Army suddenly stormed into their house at Buffalo Road in 1944, Mr Krishna Veerappen, who was then eight years old, feared for his adopted sister, an ethnic Chinese, who was about to be taken away.

"They chanced upon her while patrolling," said the 85-year-old, who is now a retiree and part-time mediator. "And, when someone got taken away in those days, they usually did not return."

The girl was eventually saved by his eldest brother, a Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) employee, who could speak Japanese and threatened to report the soldiers to the military police.

Mr Krishna, who had an illustrious 50-year career as a civil engineer and head of a government department regulating building and construction activities, pointed out that the period of the Japanese occupation of Singapore (1942 to 1945) "was tough for all of us, but the Indians survived".

He said: "Indians were not overt supporters of the Japanese. But they were given preferences in employment, for example in the PSA. My brother continued to work at PSA even after the Japanese left."

Mr Krishna was reminiscing about the dark days during the Japanese occupation as the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore was commemorated with a ceremony at the Kranji War Cemetery on Tuesday.

On Feb 15, 1942, Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, the General Officer Commanding of the Allied army which defended Malaya and Singapore during World War II, made the decision to surrender to the Japanese 25th Army at the Battlebox in Fort Canning Hill.

It came after 70 days of intense fighting in Malaya and Singapore and heralded the start of three years of Japanese military occupation of Singapore.

Mr Krishna remembers that the Japanese soldiers looked fierce, but were helpful and liberal at times. "They were willing to give us a little more rice and sugar," he told tabla!

He grew up in Little India and his family lived in a two-storey house on Buffalo Road. It was opposite a stretch of houses owned by prominent businessman O. Ramasamy Nadar.

"During the war, he and his entire family moved to India, leaving the houses in the care of a manager," said Mr Krishna. "One of the houses was converted into a dispensary and later into an infirmary for the Indian National Army (an armed force formed by Indian freedom fighters and Imperial Japan)."

He also recalled that bodies from the infirmary were buried together, "perhaps eight to ten at a time" on land where the current Farrer Park HDB flats stand.

In those days, INA servicemen used to perform marching drills at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple compound on Serangoon Road.

"I used to playfully join them," he said. "They were friendly and gave me ground coffee with a sweet potato or a tapioca piece.

"The ground floor of our house was open for singles to stay temporarily. Several INA personnel used our facilities. Their fervour when speaking about India's freedom was inspiring."

Mr Krishna also said the Indian community was excited when INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose spoke at a gathering in 1943.

"Throngs of people gathered near the then Supreme Court building to catch a glimpse of the celebrated leader," he said. "Netaji was in a car and I could not see his face."

Mr Krishna described his meals during those days as frugal, with rice meals served only during evenings and tapioca pieces typically the lunch.

He learnt basic Tamil, English and maths from a lady tutor who was paid $2 a month. Before that, he studied at the nearby Japanese school for two months, but the schooling was too disruptive.

"During the early days of the occupation, there was continuous bombing and frequent sirens," he said.

"Lessons normally did not go longer than half an hour. Also, to hide, we had to run from the school to a trench in Farrer Park."

The war delayed his formal education and he was 10 years old by the time he managed to enrol at the private Royal English school.

Associate Professor Rajesh Rai, Head of the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore, said that, while Indians were not killed en masse by the Japanese, they did not fare much better than other communities either.

"Indians were earmarked for several Japanese projects," he said.

"Several Indians were forced to work on projects such as the Burma Railway (also known as the Death Railway) and on building aerodromes. The Japanese trusted the Indians more in the sense that the Indians would not sabotage the construction projects.

"A high number of Indians lost their lives and many were resettled in the Riau islands. At times, Indians who caught diseases were burnt in their huts by the Japanese."

While the INA served as an inspiration for many Indians, Prof Rai said that some of the support the outfit received was pragmatic.

"By mid 1943, several rubber plantations were closed and some who did not wish to be involved in labour projects decided to join the INA," he said.

"Towards the end of the occupation, the position of many INA members changed due to the harsh conditions such as starvation and disease."

janark@sph.com.sg

"During the early days of the occupation, there was continuous bombing and frequent sirens. Lessons (in school) normally did not go longer than half an hour. Also, to hide, we had to run from the school to a trench in Farrer Park."

- Mr Krishna Veerappen (above)

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