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Fall of Singapore at 75: Australian Malays, Singaporeans remember the occupation

Ginny Costin
Chinese Ginny Costin was in Penang under occupation and now lives in south-west Sydney.

ABC Radio Canberra: Andrea Ho

The people left behind in Singapore and Malaysia upon the fall of Singapore and the British retreat 75 years ago today saw their lives irrevocably change.

Today, emigrants from Malaysia (then Malaya) and Singapore are themselves and their extended families Australian, and their stories are part of a larger story of war in the Asia-Pacific.

Ginny Costin is 77 years old and lives in south-west Sydney, but in late 1941 she was a little girl growing up with her Chinese family in Penang.

Ms Costin remembers the first bombs that were dropped as the Japanese imperial forces advanced.

"One night I woke up and there was all this bombing going on. Everything was dark, and I was terrified," she said.

"Everybody went into hiding and I think that they forgot about me."

According to ANU historian Emeritus Professor Tony Reid, the Japanese troops came in hard with Chinese living in Singapore and Malaya singled out for particularly harsh treatment.

It was the start of a nightmare for Ms Costin, her family, and for the hundreds of thousands of people whose home was the Malay Peninsula and Singapore.

Shortly after the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, Japanese troops rounded up and murdered tens of thousands of Chinese in the Sook Ching Massacre.

Japan admits to killing 5,000 people, while Singapore claims 50,000 died.

"There is a bit of a tendency in all of these massacre stories to take the bigger figure because it has more of an effect, to wake you up," said Professor Reid.

Aziz Bab remembers the first occupiers behaving severely — even to the 8-year-old boy he was then.

"The soldiers that came, the first to land in Malaysia, they were very harsh," said the 83-year-old, now living in north-west Sydney.

"Every time you passed a sentry you bowed down to them. Otherwise, they slapped you."

Malaysian Tamils during the construction of Thai-Burma Railway
Malaysian Tamils were also co-opted for the construction of Thai-Burma Railway.

Commons: Malya Thamizhar Sarithiram

For survivors, life under occupation was tough. Regular business and government ground to a halt, and those few that were useful to the Japanese occupiers were co-opted.

As a result, many people turned to subsistence farming simply to survive.

It was a tough task for urban people who were not gardeners or farmers with hunger and starvation common.

Eric Gan, 82, who runs in Sydney's City-to-Surf every year was an 8-year-old son to wealthy rubber merchants in Seremban, south of Penang, before occupation.

"We were a pampered family. My grandfather was the first millionaire in Seremban, so my father was filthy rich. He had never worked a day in his life, I think," he said.

"When the war came, there was no more help anywhere ... and so we had to start all over again."

His family regressed to growing their own tapioca and sweet potato, and rearing chickens, bees, rabbits and even guinea pigs for food.

Eric Gan
Chinese Malay Eric Gan, 82, now lives in Sydney.

ABC Radio Canberra: Andrea Ho

Fear was another common experience as women and children, afraid of rape or abduction, learned to hide.

Men risked being pressed into unpaid labour or forced military service. Atrocities were widely reported.

"So when we heard that the Japanese soldiers were coming, all the women in the house would run to the farms. My mother, my sisters and so on, would all do the same."

For others, collaborating meant survival — "to bend with the wind" as Ginny Costin put it.

It provided a veneer of cooperation behind which her family members supported others in the town, ran resistance activities and hid escaped POWs.

Aziz Bab attended makeshift schools organised by soldiers and even learned a little Japanese, albeit very coarse and colloquial.

He also remembers a sense of shared humanity which drove himself and his mates to feed POWs from their own meagre crops.

Aziz Bab
Malay Aziz Bab, 83, lives in north-west Sydney.

ABC Radio Canberra: Andrea Ho

"Sometimes you'd get a train coming and in the train there would be a lot of British soldiers. I believe there were Australian soldiers too. They were all going to Singapore, to Changi," he said.

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 the region remained in political turmoil.

The British colonial forces moved back into Malaya, but a civil war between Communist and Kuomintang forces in neighbouring China rose up and the different cultural groups in the area struggled for influence.

In time, both Malaysia and Singapore won independence.

Today, the British are remembered with some bitterness for failing their colonies, leaving local people without a defence.

"Most of them don't even know what Malaysia is like, what Singapore is like," said Ms Costin. "To them it's just a word."

"We must remember that there are many sides to every war," said Professor Reid.

"Every war is horrendous. Everyone is a victim. It's just an unmitigated disaster.

"Yet we must remember not just those glorious solders. We must remember those who suffered in these wars ... in a spirit of humility and even-handedness."