Straits Times, 3 February 1999: "Poignant and panoramic."
Bob Reece: Masa Jepun: Sarawak under the Japanese 1941-1945.
Sarawak Literary Society. Kuching, 1998. 258 pages, RM80/- paper;
review by Otto Steinmayer
SOON after the Japanese Imperial Army captured Kuching on
Christmas Eve, 1941, they hung a large propaganda poster from the
corinthian columns of the General Post Office in (then) Rock Road. A
Japanese soldier stands upright and grasps the right hand of a Malay
man beneath him, as if to help him out of a ditch. Letters in Jawi
above read: ‘Yes, Allah! We have been saved by the Japanese soldiers!’
Behind them the battle-flag streams in proud glory.
This picture Prof. Bob Reece chose to be reproduced
on the cover of Masa Jepun may chill one person and arouse
bitter and sad feelings in another—those who lived through the Japanese
Occupation. Younger generations may find it a remnant of an irrelevant
past. Yet nothing better sums up with striking brevity the terrors,
hopes, and ironies of the Japanese Occupation in Sarawak.
I say ‘hopes’ advisedly. When the occupation ended
most Sarawakians were content to wipe the four years from memory.
People talked little about it, and when they did handed down tales of
unrelieved darkness and suffering. But as Sarawak was a backwater of
the war—no great battles were fought there, no large scale massacres
occurred—the occupation-period, what it really was, remained a dark
hole in Borneo history, largely unexamined.
Now Prof. Bob Reece, the foremost historian of 20th
century Sarawak, has with this magnificent book not only restored this
empty time back to the calendar of Sarawak history, but brought it to
life in a breathtakingly vivid way. Reece searched through the archives
and libraries of half the world for written accounts, but the most
fascinating stories are told by Sarawakians of every race whom Reece
interviewed. From these hundreds of voices emerges a picture of the
Occupation that looks strikingly more mixed than the simplistic
Iron-Heel-Crushing-the-Helpless view. The Occupation was not such a
strictly black and white affair. Those who lived through it describe it
in color, and for that reason the story is all the more complex—and
The main events, the outbreak of war, the arrival of
the Japanese, and the course of the occupation are familiar to all
Malaysians and I need only sketch them here. On Monday 8 December (our
time) the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Malaya. The same day the
staff of the oil fields at Seria blew up the wells and machinery. The
Japanese captured Miri on the 16th, bombed Kuching on the 19th, killing
many civilians at Ban Hock Road, and took Kuching on Christmas Eve.
Fortress Singapore’s guns might have pointed the
wrong way, but Sarawak lay completely naked. By the end of January the
country was entirely in Japanese hands, the white officials of the
Brooke government had been interned, and an era had closed for good.
The Japanese were in the beginning determined to
make the best of their conquest. Japanese propaganda was that they were
sama kulit with the Malays and natives and that they had come to
liberate the oppressed races from the European yoke. These at first
appeared to be more than words. The Japanese busily moved to establish
order, re-constitute the civil government, and stabilize prices.
The cultured and liberal Lieut. General Marquis
Toshinari Maeda was picked to head the Borneo Defence Force. His friend
Setsuo Yamada, a ‘pleasant and informal man’, governed Kuching
following a policy of continuity and attempted to smooth the transition
from Brooke to Japanese administration in such a way as to minimize
confusion and gain the good will of the people.
The Japanese kept the local elite in their jobs. The
datus, the foremost Chinese such as the Ongs, and prominent Iban such
as Phillip Jitam and Charles Mason received prestigious positions in
the administration. Through them the Japanese governed much as the
The Japanese also tried hard to increase
productivity. They needed oil for their war effort, but a top priority
was to make Sarawak self-sufficient in rice. The planting of padi
was encouraged—conscript labour proved necessary— and eventually
Sarawak was producing 70% of its needs.
The Japanese instituted a vigorous policy of
Japanification in culture, hoping themselves to enjoy the prestige that
the British knew before, and by insisting on their kinship with
Sarawakians as fellow Asians, to make them sharers in Japanese imperial
pride. At the same time the Japanese kept a respectful attitude towards
Islam and kept their hands off the Iban and other natives, as long as
they did not make trouble.
Despite these pretensions to progress, Japan was at
war and Sarawak suffered the grim subjection of a conquered nation. The
kempei-tai dealt ruthlessly with any hint of anti-Japanese
sentiment. The Chinese suffered the worst.
The Sarawak Chinese knew very well the horrors that
the Japanese had been committing in the mainland since 1937, and many
had been active raising money for the China Relief Distress Fund. The
Japanese considered the Chinese, unlike the other races of Sarawak,
their enemies, and one of the first actions of the kempei-tai
was to launch a operation of arrests and terror against them in
Residents of Kuching were brought to witness a mass
public execution. The kempei-tai continued to torture and
murder suspected persons up to the end of the war, and the jikeidan,
a vigilante network, ensured that there always informers and suspects.
The sinister mansion which housed kempei-tai headquarters still
stood, shunned and crumbling, up to a few years ago on Jalan Jawa.
Even for those not in danger of being hauled to the
cells, the Japanese presence inspired fear. Anybody could be slapped or
beaten for not bowing to the lowliest private; people could have their
homes entered, and their food taken away, or even their daughters and
sons to serve in brothels and in forced labour.
The Japanese in Sarawak reached the pinnacle of
their glory in July 1943 when Prime Minister Tojo came to visit. From
then on, things declined swiftly as the Allies pushed forward in the
Pacific and destroyed Japanese supply lines. Japanese currency began an
inflationary spiral; the term duit pisang still goes the rounds
as a bad joke. Food and other necessities disappeared and life became
harder for everyone.
The agonies of the Occupation did not end without
blood. In March Allied guerrillas parachuted into Bario. The Dayaks,
and especially the Iban, were encouraged by increasing signs of
Japanese weakness to abandon their neutral stance and declare war upon
them. The Iban, as Temenggong Koh later stated, became principally
responsible for driving the Japanese from the interior of Sarawak.
We would never have known the scope and intensity of
the Iban campaign, what they themselves call perang jipun, if
Reece had not gathered eyewitness narratives. Reece’s careful
reconstruction of perang jipun makes very exciting reading, for
the Iban responded to the liberation of Sarawak with the full energy of
their martial tradition. Iban tell some of the most interesting stories
in the book. Tedong anak Barieng, the brother of Tun Jugah, was an
enthusiastic leader of the fighting. His account of the capture of
Kapit by the Iban is appallingly vivid.
Meantime in Engkelili, Soichiro Suzuki, a person of
genuine goodwill towards the Iban, summoned remarkable courage and
single-handedly dissuaded Pengulu Jimbun and his followers from further
Japanese voices speak too. As defeat loomed for
them, many Japanese suffered terribly as they retreated unprepared into
the jungle. The account by the two survivors of the Seria unit as they
fled from Seria cannot but make us feel pity for them in their ordeal.
Reece has rescued many other heroes of the
occupation from oblivion. The ill-fated patriot Albert Kwok, a
Kuching-born doctor, raised a guerrilla force that caused alarm to the
Japanese in North Borneo until he gave up his life to end reprisals
against civilians. Andrew Jika in Lundu took lesser risks, and in
palming off inferior timber on the Japanese managed to preserve his
people’s valuable engkabang trees. Reece tells the stories of
dozens of other men and women who persevered.
The Occupation had been harsh, but it taught some
valuable lessons. Reece tells how Sarawakians managed out of their own
ingenuity to devise substitutes for kerosene and diesel out of rubber,
and medicines out of jungle products. Chinese towkays who had
fled to the countryside learned to grow vegetables and rice.
Entrepreneurs like Baki anak Resol traded stealthily with Sambas,
others sailed to the Natunas. In outlying parts the old ways came back
to their own. With shotgun cartridges gone, Dayaks again hunted with sumpit
and spear, made cloth out of tree-bark and used piston-lighters instead
For the Iban, the Occupation was a cultural
renaissance. Unable to travel, young men returned to their longhouses
and to their parents and grandparents. In this time Iban scholars such
as Benedict Sandin and Gerunsin Lembat acquired their deep knowledge of
poetry and myth.
Æschylus says that learning is through
suffering. It is not a complete irony that the hardships of the
Occupation taught the lesson which thoughtful people remembered as the
most impressive, that if you stand on your own feet and work hard, you
can look after yourself, that in a place like Sarawak no-one need
starve. The Japanese themselves set an example of hard work and
discipline. Though in the end their claims of being brothers and
liberators of fellow Asians proved hollow, their ideal of self-reliance
genuinely benefited the people they had ruled so briefly.
With complete justice Masa Jepun can be
called a panoramic book. Reece has put a photograph on nearly every
page, and together they illustrate every aspect of the Occupation and
show us the faces of many participants, great and small, Japanese and
Sarawakian. Some of these portraits, such as that of G.R.H. Arundell
and his Iban wife, must have been extremely hard to find. The portrait
of Tedong that captures his character so well is worth the price of the
Masa Jepun is at the same time scholarly and
eminently readable. Reece not only gives us the facts, he also makes us
feel the poignancy and pathos of life under the Japanese. Masa
Jepun is a major new contribution to Sarawak history and will give
much opportunity for thought as well as the pleasure of an epic story.