Japanese army in Malaya
Written by Danny Wong Tze-Ken
LATELY, there has been a resurgence of interest within the Chinese community in Malaysia to seek compensation from the Japanese Government for wrongdoing against the community in Malaysia and Singapore during World War II.
Unlike previous issues which involved the questions of maltreatment of prisoners of war, comfort women, and war damage, the current claim centres on forced donation imposed by the Japanese Military Administration on the Chinese population in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore in 1942. The communities had to contribute $50mil (in Straits dollars) to the Japanese at that time.
The Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia that is leading the claim is asking the Japanese Government to repay RM500mil to the Chinese community; this figure is the federation’s estimation of the present day equivalent of $50mil Straits dollars in 1942. The money would be used to provide for the welfare of the Chinese community, particularly for caring for old folk and for education.
Why the Japanese forced payment
Immediately after the fall of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942, a Japanese Military Administration was set up to rule the newly captured territories.
The administration tried to portray Japan as the liberators of the Asian people from Western imperialism and made efforts to promote its concept of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Thus, in many ways, the administration was able to practise an equitable policy in treating all the races in Malaya and Singapore.
After the dust of the military campaign had settled, the administration began to be more specific when dealing with the different major races in Malaya and Singapore. It encouraged the Malay community to co-operate with the Japanese; the Indians to join the Indian Independent League and its military arm, the Indian National Army.
Towards the Chinese, however, the Japanese adopted a different policy. On the one hand, the administration realised that the economic resources of the Chinese could be utilised to regenerate the economy of the territories; on the other hand, the Japanese were fully conscious of the hostile feelings the Chinese had towards the Japanese Army because of its invasion of China.
At the same time, the Japanese Administration was also angry with the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore for supporting China during the Sino-Japan War.
After Sino-Japanese hostilities broke out in 1931 and became full-blown after the 1937 Double Seventh incident Chinese from various parts of South-East Asia set up their respective branches of the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement that was aimed at raising funds for China.
Between July 1937 and October 1938, 45mil Chinese yuan was collected from contributions, and another $21mil was collected through bond subscription. The Chinese in Malaya and Singapore contributed $19mil and took up a total of $12mil worth of bonds.
In 1938, the National Salvation Movement was reorganised by Tan Kah Kee, one of Singapore’s richest men; the movement was renamed Nanyang China Relief General Association and the China Relief Fund was administered centrally.
Tan was extremely patriotic towards China, especially in the face of the Japanese invasion. He was a generous philanthropist as well as the president of the Amoy University in Fujian, China.
Under Tan’s leadership, the Chinese in South-East Asia responded enthusiastically and subscription to the relief fund was taken up passionately. Between November 1938 and October 1939, South-East Asian Chinese had donated about 60mil yuan, with British Malaya and Singapore contributing 30mil. From November 1938 to December 1940, the total sum collected was 177mil yuan with Malaya and North Borneo’s shares standing at $88mil.
The total sum contributed between July 1937 and October 1940 escalated to 217mil yuan, with Malaysia and Singapore contributing 125mil, or about 54% of the total.
Apart from the China Relief Fund, South-East Asian Chinese also freely remitted large sums of money to support China’s wartime expenditure. Between 1937 and 1941, they remitted 5.9bil yuan to China. That amount made up between half to one-third of China’s wartime deficit. And again, the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore were the most active contributors.
Apart from this financial support, the Japanese Military Administration also took to heart the role played by the Chinese community in resisting Japanese military advances in Malaya and Singapore. Many had taken up arms either as guerrillas or as part of British-organised forces such as the Volunteers or the Dalforce (an irregular unit of Chinese volunteers formed by the British and led by Colonel John Dalley).
In short, the Japanese military regarded the Chinese as dangerous to their security and decided to take action to neutralise this threat.
Thus the Sook Ching campaign in Singapore was implemented, resulting in the massacre of a few thousands young Chinese who were considered a security threat. Chinese were also killed elsewhere, especially in places suspected of supporting, or being sympathetic to, resistance movements.
Given this situation, and in order to mobilise Chinese economic resources for the recovery of the territories’ economy, the Japanese set up the Oversea Chinese Association. It was through this association that the demand for the cash contribution was made.
The Overseas Chinese Association’s role
The Oversea Chinese Association was set up on March 2, 1942, as a means for the Japanese to deal with the Chinese community. The Japanese sought out Dr Lim Boon Keng one of the most respectable Chinese leaders in pre-war Singapore who had served as a member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council to serve as the association’s president. The rest of the association’s leadership was drawn from Chinese leaders of diverse backgrounds, representing the respective dialect groups:
President: Dr Lim Boon Keng;
Vice-President: S.Q. Wong;
Secretaries: Tan Yeok Seong and Chng Kuek Thong.
Members representing various communities:
Hainan: Lim Seow Cheong and Quek Shin;
Teochew: Yeo Chang Boon, Lee Wee Nam and Tan Siak Kiu;
Cantonese: S.Q. Wong, Dr Loh Seng Tak and Ching Kee Sun;
Hokkien: Tan Ean Khiam, Lee Choon Seng, Loo Tien Po, Chua Chwee Oh, Lee Chang Lang and Ng Kian Teck;
Hakka: Dr Hu Tsai Kuen and Lim Soo Ban;
Sam Kiang: Yang Shing Hua and Run-Run Shaw;
Straits-born: Dr Lim Boon Keng and Tan Hoon Siang.
Apart from these community representatives, delegations from the states were also represented in the association and were asked to set up branches in their respective states. Members of the association’s Managing Council were required to be present on the association’s premises daily to attend to business and to keep in touch with the Japanese Military Administration.
In March 1942, the administration demanded the Chinese community to make a gift contribution to the Japanese military in exchange for the lives and property of the Chinese and to atone for the Chinese role in pre-war anti-Japanese activities. A sum of $50 to $60mil was expected.
While there were no life-threatening words uttered by Japanese officials, the message conveyed was clear to leaders of the Overseas Chinese Association, especially after several of them were harshly treated. The respectable Dr Lim Boon Keng, for instance, only agreed to lead the association after the Japanese threatened to harm his wife and promised to release his son who had been detained during the Sook Ching operation. The member from Malacca who questioned the state’s $5.5mil quota of the contribution was slapped by Japanese officers in front of his colleagues.
These actions definitely played a part in forcing the association’s leaders into agreeing to give part of their wealth to the Japanese Army. But it was probably the attitude of Japanese military officers like Colonel Watanabe (left) and Lieutenant Colonel Takase that finally persuaded them: the officers made it clear to the association’s leaders that the Chinese owed the Japanese not only their wealth, but their lives, too. The feeling of being helplessly at these officials’ mercy finally prompted the association to comply with the Japanese demand. To the Japanese, however, the cash contribution was considered a “voluntary donation” made by the Chinese community.
Getting the money together
Once the decision was made, the association set to work. While there was actually sufficient money in circulation in Malaya to meet the demand, a mechanism was still required to collect the money.
First, a general allotment was made for each state based on the number of Chinese residing there (see table SS, pls insert location of graphic called CASH1 here). However, Malacca was severely taxed it was alloted $5.5mil even though the number of Chinese in that state was comparatively small. This mis-allotment was mainly caused by the Japanese Administration greatly overestimating the wealth of the Straits Chinese; it believed these Chinese were wealthier than the others. As both Malacca and Perak found it extremely hard to raise their allotted contributions, part of it, $2.5mil, had to be borne by Singapore.
To raise the funds, a Cash Contribution Committee led by Tan Ean Khiam was formed under the Overseas Chinese Association and a a mechanism worked out to collect the contribution. A proportionate rate was made out by the association’s leaders on how much each individual was to contribute.
First, it was decided the amount of money the whole community would contribute would be based on pre-war tax returns or property assessments. Anyone with assets of $3,000 and above was to contribute 8% of the value of their assets. The association asked members of one dialect group to assess members of another dialect group. Apart from those guidelines, though, methods used by individual state branches of the association varied.
All money collected was to be deposited into the Bank of Taiwan or the Yokohama Specie Bank; and collections had to be completed by April 20, 1942.
The leaders of the association’s branches set to work in a frenzy, constantly conscious of the fact that severe punishment would be meted out if the Chinese failed to raise the amount required. When they realised they could not meet the deadline, they asked for and received a two-month extension.
By June 20, 1942, however, all the association had managed to raise was $28mil. The sum included not only cash but also gold, valuable goods and even property such as houses, shophouses and rubber plantations, all valued at low prices. The Japanese Administration then allowed the association to obtain a loan of $22mil from the Yokohama Specie Bank to make up the balance. The loan was given at 6% interest and was to be repaid in one year; it was jointly guaranteed by the state branches of the Overseas Chinese Association (see table SS, pls insert location of graphic called CASH2 here).
Once the amount was fully collected, a ceremony was held on June 25, 1942, to hand the money to General Tomoyuki Yamashita, famously known as the Tiger of Malaya.
A speech was to be made by the Overseas Chinese Association at the ceremony, but its first draft was rejected by the general because, he said, the Chinese were not sincere in expressing their gratitude to the Japanese Imperial Army.
A revised speech that included many forms of humiliation of the Chinese was prepared and later read out by Dr Lim Boon Keng at the ceremony. He also presented General Yamashita with the $50mil cheque. The ceremony was filmed by the Japanese Military Propaganda Section.
Similar demands for a cash contribution was also made by the Japanese Military Administration in Sabah. A sum of $1mil was demanded in return for a promise not to destroy Sandakan and Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), the two major towns there. The sum was duly collected.
There is a difference, however, in how the demands were made in in Malaya and Singapore and in Sabah. In Malaya and Singapore, the demand for the cash contribution was made in March 1942 and a deadline finally set in June; in Sabah, the demand was made slightly later and the deadline was the end of the year.
After the cash contribution episode, the Overseas Chinese Association was given many other assignments with most involving raising money to fund Japanese social and military programmes. The association was finally wound up on Aug 23, 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrendered to the Americans. A decision was made to use the association’s property for the rehabilitation of the New Villages in Malaya; the balance was handed over to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to be used for charitable purposes.
The immediate post-war years saw various attempts made by the people of Malaya and Singapore to seek war damage compensation from the Japanese Government. Apart from the “Blood Debt” for lives lost during the war and property destroyed, a separate attempt was made to recover the $50mil “voluntary donation” made to the Japanese Military Administration in 1942.
On July 4, 1947, a Singapore Appeal Committee wrote to the Colonial Government to seek the return of the money from the Japanese Government. The issue was included in a list of demands made upon Japan by the Federation of Malaya and Singapore. However, nothing came of it.
On Aug 25, 1963 the year Malaya became Malaysia and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Singapore formed a committee to look into the question of getting the Japanese Government to refund the $50mil. The idea was carried by the Confederation of Chinese Chambers of Commerce of Malaysia, which made a demand of $130mil from the Japanese Government as compensation for the $50mil forced “donation”.
After the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, it was at first decided that the two governments would take their claim to the Japanese Government separately. The Malaysian Government, however, argued that since both Singapore and Malaya were under British rule, and since Britain had obtained a war indemnity from Japan of which $455mil was meant for Malaya and Singapore, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore no longer had rights to make such claims.
But the Malaysian Government’s view was not shared by the people who were making the claim. They maintained that war indemnities were meant for war victims and the rehabilitation of the economy; these monies were disbursed through the Allied War Damage Fund and the War Victims Fund. The claimants did not feel such compensation covered the $50mil the Chinese communities in Malaya and Singapore was forced to donate.
The issue was to drag on for a few years before the Singapore and Japanese Governments reached an agreement in 1967: the Japanese would make a gift loan of S$25mil to Singapore. The money was to be used to purchase shipping material and to set up a ground station for satellite communications.
In Malaysia’s case, a separate agreement was reached in July 1967: a sum of M$25mil (Malaysian ringgit) was presented to be used to purchase two ocean-going vessels from Japan.
There was, however, some wangling before the agreement was actually signed. The Japanese Government demanded that the Malaysian Government guarantee it would make no further demands. This was rejected by the Malaysian Government.
It was not until September 1967 that the agreement was signed after Japan withdrew that demand. The two governments, however, did agree that the gift of M$25mil would be the final and complete settlement of the unpleasant events of the Japanese Occupation.
To the Chinese community of Malaysia, however, the issue is far from over as that indemnity did not include the return of the $50mil to the community. Since 1967 the issue has been raised whenever a claim is made against Japan for wrongdoings during WW II, but to no avail.
However, the latest effort by the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia seems more favourable even if it is 55 years late. According to recent news reports, the federation has contacted the Japanese ambassador to Malaysia as well as an official from the Japan Foreign Ministry who has promised to look into the matter.
Danny Wong Tze-Ken is a lecturer with the Department of History, Universiti Malaya.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, also of Universiti Malaya.
Notes: Statistic-How much each state had to pay.
Notes: Statistic-How much each state guaranteed to pay.
Notes: STF-During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, the Chinese community was forced to contribute money to the Japanese Army. DANNY WONG TZE-KEN examines how and why this Millennium Marker situation came about.