Our war survivors
IT was exactly 70 years ago today – Feb 15, 1942 – when Lieutenant-general Arthur Percival, the British General Officer Commanding Malaya during World War II, took the drastic step of signing the surrender document that enabled the Japanese to rule over Singapore and Malaya.
His much criticised move, which former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”, not only undermined Britain’s standing in the Far East but also turned life into a nightmare for Malayans and Singaporeans for three and a half years.
The Japanese ruled with an iron fist, often beheading those who stepped out of line. Thousands of young women were forced to work as sex slaves while many Malayans ended up as labourers on the notorious Death Railway in Burma (which claimed the lives of over 100,000 Asians and Allied prisoners of war).
Malayans struggled for survival and lived in poor conditions. During the grim period, tapioca, sweet potato leaves, yam and porridge were about the only food that kept people alive.
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the fall of Malaya and Singapore and to celebrate the courageage of soldiers from around the region, the History Channel (Astro Channel 555) is airing WWII: Asia Occupied, a series of documentaries that begins tonight and continues every night until Friday, chronicling the Occupation and resistence against it.
Tonight (9pm), there is Battlefield: The Fall Of Singapore followed by Rising Sun Over Malaya (10pm). Tomorrow, viewers can tune in to The Sook Ching Massacre (9pm) and Fighting For India: The Woman Who Dared (10pm). On Friday, there’s Three Years And Eight Months In Hong Kong (9pm) and Philippine Resistance: Refusal To Surrender (10pm).
From the lips of survivors
Rising Sun Over Malaya takes viewers into the dramatic story of how the Japanese swept into Malaya on tanks and bicycles, pushing demoralised British forces aside with ease.
The documentary was commissioned by AETN All Asia Networks, in collaboration with Malaysia’s National Film Development Corporation (Finas), Novista (headed by husband-and-wife documentary filmmakers Harun Rahman and Lara Ariffin), and Primeworks Studios.
Lara was inspired to work on the historic documentary because it presents an important story about Malaya’s past, one that influenced our subsequent path towards independence and growth.
“Events that transpired during the Japanese Occupation were crucial in nation-building. Sadly, the younger generation have minimal knowledge about it. Hopefully, the documentary will draw their attention to a dark yet vital period of Malaya’s history,” said Lara, 45, during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
The hour-long documentary focuses on vivid eyewitness accounts and interviews with war survivors who experienced the Occupation first hand. It also examines the still little-known two-week interregnum period, between Japanese surrender and British re-occupation, when the collapse of the Japanese order made way for clashes between local political and social forces.
Harun says the documentary’s selling point was that it featured stories of ordinary Malaysians who heroically resisted Japanese rule and lived to tell the tale.
“There are many statements about the war from the defenders (British) but hardly any reports from the oppressed (Malayans),” he points out, adding that “this documentary tells first-hand stories of war survivors who suffered under Japanese rule.
“Almost everyone has heard stories about the Japanese Occupation from their parents, who heard it from their parents. It is always second-hand. This time, we spoke to septuagenarians and octogenarians who shared their horror stories about how difficult life was under Japanese rule. In that sense, we spoke to the man on the street who doesn’t have a voice. That makes it relatable to viewers,” says Harun, 47.
Novista, set up in 1991, is noted for several renowned TV documentaries including The Malayan Emergency, The Smart Tunnel and Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh. In 2010, the company won two awards at the Malaysia Documentary
Awards for Best Wildlife Film for Among The Great Apes and Best Script for The Malayan Emergency. Last year, Novista received the Highly Commended award at the 2011 Asian Television Awards for its documentary, The
Stories to make you cry
Locating war survivors to interview was akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack; the documentary-makers used every avenue to find them, including going to World War II memorials and using word-of-mouth and Facebook. They also travelled to places known to have experienced different aspects of the Occupation and war, including Kota Baru and Grik in Kelantan; Ipoh, Kampar and Taiping in Perak; and Segamat in Johor, to obtain personal stories from the victims. “We also spoke to friends who led us to war survivors in far-flung places. We travelled more than 1,600km over six states to interview 11 survivors. We interviewed a massacre survivor in Seremban and a death railway survivor in Segamat. Their poignant stories tugged painfully at our heartstrings,” says Lara.
One such victim was Petaling Jaya-based food stall operator Seow Boon Hor, 78. He was only seven years old when he witnessed his parents and brother’s death at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan.
Seow recalled during a phone interview: “My father, mother and younger brother and I went to the town centre to collect rice. Instead of distributing rice to people, the Japanese soldiers took out their bayonets and stabbed innocent victims, including myself. The pain was unbearable to the point that I fainted. When I woke up, I realised my entire family had perished and I had become an orphan.”
And although it has been over seven decades, Seow says the wounds have not healed.
“I was one of thousands of young children who became orphans due to the brutality of the Japanese soldiers. It was tough to grow up without parental guidance and love,” says Seow, his voice cracking with emotion.
“The younger generation might find it hard to comprehend as they, fortunately, did not have to live under Japanese rule. Hopefully, future generations will be enlightened after watching the documentary,” says the father of eight.
While stories told by survivors are priceless, Lara admits that one of her biggest challenges was having to ask survivors to recall their pain. The worst was when victims shed tears as they told of the horror they had experienced.
“When Harun and I were editing, we couldn’t help but tear up as we listened to their stories. Although we may have seen the recordings over 100 times, it really gets to you when you listen to these stories,” says Lara about the five months it took to finish the documentary.
For Harun, editing also proved to be a huge hurdle.
“The most frustrating part was trying to compress everything into the one-hour slot while keeping it interesting for viewers. Although this is a documentary about our own past, it is still not easy to attract viewers, as they might prefer to watch other interesting programmes on the many different channels available nowadays,” says Harun.
In addition to personal recollections, the documentary features additional footage and photographs from many archival sources, including the Imperial War Museum in London, broadcasting service NHK in Tokyo, Filem Negara in Petaling Jaya, and criticalpast. com, a royalty-free archival footage collection.
Lara hopes the documentary will preserve important memories for future generations and serve as a reminder of the price paid for the freedom we enjoy today.
“There are many documentaries about massacres that have happened throughout history. But the difference with this documentary is it contains local stories with a fresh perspective from the people’s point of view. The handing over of Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese during World War II has gone down in history books but it is interesting for local as well as international audiences to hear stories from a local perspective.
“It is equally important for the younger generation to watch this, as it is, after all, part of our history. And the bottom line is, if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it,” says Lara.
Rising sun over malaya
premieres tonight at 10pm on the History Channel (Astro Ch 555). For more details, find Novista at facebook.com.
Highland Towers Disaster.disaster An early work – Temenggor: Biodiversity In The Face Of Danger – received the best documentary award at the 1998 Malaysian Film Festival.
War survivor Seow boon Hor was only seven years old when
Japanese soldiers killed his parents and younger brother
during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya.
Power of the past:
Lara Ariffin and Harun rahman were in turns inspired and driven to tears while making and editing risingsunovermalaya.