THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
The Imperial Japanese Army had advanced through Singapore with little opposition and one column of troops had already occupied the Rumah Miskin Police Station at the junction of Upper Serangoon Road and Lavender Street. This was just a stone’s throw from my divisional headquarters at Kandang Kerbau.
That night I decided to stay at my police station to await the inevitable. I didn't want to abandon my post again. I had been forced to do that once already. Now there was no where else to run to and I was tired of running.
I had never felt so alone and helpless in all my life. I had taken an oath to defend these colonies but like everyone else, we were all caught up in events that were far beyond our control. Some people headed for the churches, temples and mosques seeking divine protection for the hours ahead. Many more gathered their loved ones together to wait out this unholy night and the consequences that were surely to follow.
Some police officers had gone home to spend the last few hours with their families and would return at dawn. Like the others, I opted to stay behind.
“Halford, what are you still doing here?” asked John, a British police officer and a good friend of mine. For a while we were both attached to the same police station at Alor Gajah.
“Not doing a whole lot. What about you?” I replied not knowing what else to say.
“I’ve got nowhere else to go. My family is on the other side of the world remember? You know, we are probably going to get overrun tomorrow if the army doesn’t surrender first. The Japs are just a couple of streets away.”
“Yeah, I heard. We haven’t received any orders from the military. I guess there’s not much chance of a counter-attack huh?”
“It’s over, Hal. It was over the moment the British withdrew from Malaya. Singapore is just too small to be defended,” replied John. “You heard the church bells?”
“Yup, I think just about everyone did,” I replied sullenly.
“You think it was signalling the surrender?” asked John.
“Maybe … or maybe it was a reminder to pray … for deliverance … or for a miracle.”
“Maybe that’s about all we can do. We’ve done our best and now it’s over.”
“Do you really believe that, John?”
“What – that we did our best?”
“Yeah, this was supposed to be a fortress protected by thousands of troops and yet we didn’t seem to have put up much of a fight. Nah, I’m not convinced we did our best, not even close,” I replied bitterly.
“We followed our orders. The British Army – it was their show for King and Country and all that rah-rah that comes with it. I don’t think we could have fought any harder but maybe we could have fought a lot smarter. Still, we all are going to live with the consequences. It’s going to take a long time to turn this war around even with the Americans now in on it,” replied John.
“Yeah, assuming we all survive that long.”
“You take care now, Hal. Keep your chin up and your head down,” said John with a mischievous smile as he walked away.
“Hey, isn’t that a contradiction?” I called out with a laugh.
“This whole bloody war is a contradiction, Hal. Just go with the flow,” John shouted back as he continued walking away sensing that I needed to be alone with my thoughts.
The sky glowed orange as the fires around Singapore continued to burn through the night. No one it seemed was attempting to put them out any more. It was all a lost cause.
In my twisted thoughts, a line from the Lord’s Prayer suddenly popped into my head – ‘… And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. I had recited that prayer so many times, never quite grasping its significance until this very night. It was so tempting to give in to despair as evil was now at the door. The soldiers of an ungodly empire were around the corner and in just a few short hours they would be here. Maybe those church bells were a sign after all, a sign telling me to be strong and not to lose faith.
Eventually I saw the first rays of dawn sweeping over Singapore in the distance. It seemed like the curtains of the final act had just opened and the stage was set. I could not shake the heaviness of defeat swelling up deep inside me as I bowed my head to pray one last time.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the ‘worst disaster’ in British military history. In an instant, some 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war surrendering to an enemy only a third of their size. The fate of many more civilians abandoned by their European protectors was far less certain.
At 7am the next day, Japanese soldiers entered the remains of my police station. They all looked tired and unshaven and their bloodshot eyes made them seem even more menacing. They were uncouth and somewhat barbaric in their behaviour, stuffing handfuls of rice from their pockets into their mouths as they pointed their weapons at us.
Once they had control of the police station, they kept us all under guard. I guess they were waiting for their next orders and so were we.
The following morning they made us line up and bow as a few Japanese officers entered the building. We were then segregated into three groups. One was made up of British police officers who were immediately taken away to begin their internment as prisoners of war. I watched John as he and the others were marched off. He had thrust his chin up in a mock display of defiance that thankfully went unnoticed by the Japanese guards.
Another batch was for Asian police officers and the third for Eurasians.
When it came to the Eurasian batch, we were further divided into two groups – one was for the fair-skinned and the other for those with dark complexion. The fair-skinned officers were deemed to be ‘enemy aliens’ and they too were taken away to be interred as prisoners of war. Like the others who were more tanned, I was simply told to go home. All those years of playing hockey for Saint Joseph’s Institution in the blazing sun had darkened my skin and it was this alone that saved me from spending the rest of the war behind bars.
The next day the Asian police officers who were mostly Malays, were allowed to be reinstated into the police force under the Japanese control. However they were stripped of their ranks and would serve as mere constables. I had no intention of joining such an organisation and starting at the bottom all over again.
Apart from my obvious disdain for the Japanese and what they had done to Singapore and its inhabitants, I had an even more compelling reason not to rejoin the police force. I was concerned that my wartime duties in Malaya in apprehending Japanese citizens and local collaborators may become known and that alone could easily get me jailed if not killed on the spot.
The fear of being recognised as the man who arrested Dr Nakamura prompted me to live in relative seclusion for a while at Malay kampong (a native village) in a rubber estate close to the junction of Bedok Road and Siglap Road. I moved in with a good friend and fellow police officer and dressed like the native Malays complete with a sarong and songkok – the traditional garb of these indigenous people.
Everything was in disarray on the island. Electricity and water supplies worked intermittently at best. Schools and many shops were still closed while medical facilities for injured civilians were almost non-existent. Soldiers patrolled the streets as most of the population remained confined to their homes in curfews from dusk to dawn. The priority for everyone was just getting enough of food and water each day.
Soon the Japanese military began the slow task of getting Syonan-to back on its feet. Many civilians and POWs were roped in to bury the dead and clear the debris from the streets. Food was strictly rationed. Those who had worked in the utilities sector were ordered to return to their jobs reconnecting power lines and mending damaged water pipes. It would still take many months before some semblance of normal life returned to the island.
I had no plans for the immediate future. I wanted to give the situation some time to assess how the Japanese intended to run the country and what restrictions they would place on civilians.
Unknown to me at the time, the very next day following the surrender of Singapore, Dr Nakamura along with several other prominent Japanese nationals were released from Changi Prison on the orders of the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police.
For the next two weeks I remained in Singapore keeping a low profile in my Malay disguise. This was not very difficult to do because I spoke the language, was aware of their customs and had a good number of friends within the community.
The tiny Eurasian community was also singled out for scrutiny because of their close blood ties with the British and other Westerners. In time to come, the Japanese would try and win over the small Indian population encouraging them to support the Indian National Army in its fight against the British.
It was the small indigenous Malay population that the Japanese felt would be the least threatening and the easiest to control. Some, like the members of the Fifth Column, had already pledged their allegiance to the Emperor. Many Malays were offered low-level jobs in the police force and other branches of the Japanese civilian administration that was now running the country.
In favouring one race over the others, the Japanese had hoped to divide and rule, keeping people suspicious about their neighbours and hopefully making everyone think twice about causing trouble. This was one of the reasons why I chose to dress as a Malay, I felt it would attract less attention from the Japanese soldiers who patrolled the city.
However my visit to Malacca turned out to be a very brief one indeed. Soon after my arrival, a good friend of mine warned me that Dr Nakamura too had returned to Malacca and was now holding a high position in the administrative service.
Apparently the man had made several attempts to trace me but these were unsuccessful. Fearing that I may have just placed my head in a noose by returning to Malacca, I left quickly in my disguise and boarded a train bound for Singapore.
Upon returning to the island, I stayed with my sister and her intended in-laws at 12 Orchard Road above a shop which repaired and sold radios. I did not know it then but fate had placed me in a position to begin the next chapter of my life.