Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Telling a great story of Malaya in Singapore

(With new links added) On 5 September last year, I was in Singapore participating as a panel speaker at an international conference, organised by Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education and hosted by the Singapore History Museum, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. On the same panel with me (left) was history reseracher C.C. Chin (centre) as another speaker and Leon Comber (right) as the chair. I spoke on why the Ipoh-centred Kinta Valley became the center of the war of resistance to Japanese occupation after the fall of Singapore while C.C. Chin delivered a very comprehensive and systematic picture of the organisations and activities of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) throughout Peninsular Malaya.

One of my points of observation was that while the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore must take pride in the anti-fascist war, we must never forget that there were also Malays, Indians, Orang Asli and Eurasians who also participated in one form or another in the collective defence of our land and people. Of course, I brought alone the photographs I took with Abdullah C.D., Rashid Maidin, Suriani Abdullah and Abu Samah earlier in southern Thailand to illustrate or reinforce my points.

I was glad, and am still very grateful to, panel chair Leon Comber for his self-motivated willingness for recommending my book From Pacific War to Merdeka to the audience which consisted of many scholars from many countries like Japan, WWII veterans from Australia, Britain, China and India as well as history teachers from Singapore. The English-language booklet is a compilation of my interviews with veteran communists Abdullah C.D., Rashid Maidin, Suriani Abdullah aka Eng Ming Ching and Abu Samah who participated in the war of resistance.

Leon Comber, now a Research Fellow at Monash University's Asia Institute, was a Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking British Special Branch officer during the 'Emergency'. He was also attached to the British Army which returned to Malaya in Operation Zipper immediately after the war had ended. For older generations of Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, Leon is remembered also as an ex-husband of leftwing English-language Chinese writer and close friend of Zhou Enlai, Madam Han Suyin (韩素音).

I also met Professor Wang Gungwu who delivered an opening speech for the conference. The Surabaya-born Professor Wang spent his childhood in Ipoh during the Japanese invasion and occupation. I have been reading his scholarly books and articles for many years to broaden the mind and reconnecting historical timeline. I also interviewed him several times for malaysiakini on the changing international relations of China and her neighbours in North East Asia.

Another scholar on Malaysian wartime history, Professor Yoji Akashi from Japan was also there. His works on the Malaysian wartime history always interest and thrill me because he masters a huge amount of materials from Japanese-language sources, including Kempetai records and dossiers. It seemed that he was not in good health when we met for the first time, although he was still very spirited in presenting new findings about Lai Te and Lim Bo Seng.

As the result of my presence at that conference, I have befriended many enthusiasts of wartime history of Malaysia and Singapore, including school teachers from Singapore, who still keep in touch with me through emails. Like it or not, Singapore has become an intellectually more honest, mature and open-minded society which is willing to patiently listen to and rationally discuss all sides of the great story.