New 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; RM150/- hardbound.

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 tragic.

    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 Brookes had.

    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 particular.

    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 hostility.

    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 of matches.

    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 book.

    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.