World War II Singapore: Civilian Ethnic Communities

Figure 1.--Most of the Singapore population at the time of World War II was Malay or Chinese. Here we see a Singapore Malay family before the War. A Singapore reader believes the photograph was taken at Kampong. Another readerctells us, "A kampong is a community or neighborhood within a city (in this case Singapore). A large city like Singapore must have hundreds of kampongs which would have been Malay neigborhoods. The term would not have been used for Chinese neighborhoods." Malay cities also have kampongs, but unlike Singapore there is no ethnic connotation, the termn just meaning neigborhood. The principal target of the Japanese Kempeital was the colony's large Chinese community.

The Japanese Kempeitai (military secret police) committed numerous atrocities against the civilian population of Singapore. Treatment was largedly based on one's ethnicity. Their policy was 'Sook Ching', meaning 'purge through purification'. This was the effort to get rid of civilians seen as anti-Japanese. Men were rounded up and taken to deserted spots around the island and shot there. Most were Chinese. The Kempeitai established a network of informers around the island to help them identify those who were anti-Japanese. They were well-paid by the Kempeitai and did not have to fear being arrested. Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets and commoners had to bow to them when they passed by. Those who failed to do so would be beaten or even arrested. Singapore was not a city before the British arrived. It was an island with a small village used by pirates. As a result, the ethnic mix of Singapore has always been different than the Malay Peninsula as a whole. Immigrant ethnic groups have played a very important role from the time Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post on the island (1819). One estimate suggests at that time there were about 880 Malays and aboriginal tribes and about 20 to 30 Chinese on the island. Only a few years later there were about 3,000 Malays and more than 1,000 Chinese. We are not sure what the ethnic mix was at the time of the War. We think that the Malays were the majority, but there was a very large Chinese community along with a few thousand Europeans, mostly British and Australian. The Japanese interned the Europeans who were held under terrible conditions for the rest of the world. The Chinese fared even worse. They were subjected to a horrifying series of attrocities. After the War, Japan admitted that they had killed 5,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore. By all accounts this is a gross understatement. Singapore sources suggest that the killing was about 50,000 Chinese. Some sources believe that the figure is higher.

Malay Civilans

The Malays were the dominant ethnic group in the Malay Peninsula and rekated to the Indonesians in the Dutch East Indies (DEI). There was somec resentment of both British rule and the Chinese success in the colony, although there was no significant anti-colonial resistance before the War. Some Malays looked on the Chinese in much the same way some Europeans looked on Jews. The Malays were mostly Muslim and for the most part uneducated. Islam and their culture in general made them more resistance to Westernization and this included education. Thus unlike the Chinese were not a major part of the colony's business elite. This religious difference and economic disparity helped breed resentment, toward both the British and Chinese. We do not yet have details on the Japanese treatment of ethnic Malays in Singapore or the conduct of the Malays during the occupation. We do not know at this time to what extent the ethnic Malays on Singapore or in Malaya collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation. Some Malays may have brought into Japanese propaganda that they were being liberated from European colonial rule. The Indonesian nationalists collaborated extensively with the Japanese. The Japanese saw them as the indigenous population. And did not see them as necesarily enemies like the Chinese and Europeans. A reader tells us, " They were all mistreated by the Japanese during the War, both Malays and Chinese." We think this was true, but there were definite differences between how the Japanese treated Malays and Chinese. The Japanese did not carry out actions ahainst the Malays such as the arrest of teachers and other intelectuals as were conducted in the Chinese community. (Those arrested were sumarily shot.) Malay-language schools were allowed to operate. The Malays like other Sinaporans were affected by the declining supply of consumer goods and rising prices. Obtaining food became an increasing problem as the War increasingly went against Japan. We do not know to what extent Malay civilians were picked up in the round-ups for forced labor.

Chinese Civilians

The Asian mostly Chinese population of Singapore played a very important role in the life of the British colony. Many prospered under British rule and were the heart of the colonies economy. Many were Christian and put coinsiderable attention on educating their children. Singapore's Chinese community like the rest of the world were shocked by the Japanese victoty. The British seem so dominant and powerful, They had no idea that they could be so easily defeated. Also while the ethnic Chinese had vary attitudes toward the British, most both hated and feared the Japanese because of the attrocities the Japanese were committing in China and more immediately in Malaya. Now they were in the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese for their part had been fighring in China since 1937. The Pacific War was largely an extension of their effort to colonize China. They thus saw the Singapore Chinese as hostile population and questioned their reliability in a new Japanese dominated Asia. The Japanese adopted very strict rules toward the Chinese. Their first major act was to require all Chinese men (age 18-50 years) to report to registration camps where each individual was screened. The Japanese security forces (police and military) attempted to identify individuals who were hostile. Some information was provided by informers. The major indicators they used were were employment. The Japanese assumed that teachers, journalists, intellectuals, and even domestic servants were hostule. At the time they were interogated, these individuals had no idea of the danger. These individuals were immediately arrested. Most were executed. This was just the beginning of the attrocities perpetrated against the Chinese. Precise statistics do not exist, but estimates of the number of Chinese executed at the beginning of the occupation vary--5,000-25,000 men. Many Chinese actively involved in opposing the Japanese knew the danger and escaped to the Malay Peninsula where in the jungles they organized the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army. This included what was left of the Dalforce and other Chinese irregular units. The Chinese unlike the British, Australians, and Indians could to some extent blend into the local population. After the War, Japan admitted that they had killed 5,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore. By all accounts this is a gross understatement. Singapore sources suggest that the killing totaled about 50,000 Chinese. Some sources believe that the figure is higher

European Civilians

We believe that there were around 2,500 Europeans and Australians in Singapore at the time of the British surrender. Some had been evacuated. All European and Australian prisoners were interned at Changi on the eastern end of the island. The 2,300 civilians were held separately in the prison located there. There were a small number of civilans of non-Allied nationalities. We are not sure how they were treated, but the Japanese tended to be suspicious of all Europeans, even German and Italian citizens. The civilians were held at Changi under terrible conditions. This only worsened as the War progressed. There were some actions against the internnees as a result of Allied military actions, especially rare attacks on Singapore.


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Created: 1:40 AM 10/26/2011
Last updated: 1:40 AM 10/26/2011